Adapted from a column I wrote for the March/April 2017 issue of The Dramatist:
On November 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. I have no idea how many Trump supporters are in my region. Indeed, one of the most unsettling things about this election is how it has revealed the opacity of my personal bubble. How certain I was we’d be celebrating the future instead of fearing it. But I don’t want to fear the future. I want to make it better, using the skills I know best. To that end, I’ve asked my fellow members for ideas on how to use our artistry, our craft, to advance social justice and, if possible, narrow the rifts between us.
Amy Bernstein: While so many writers typically work in isolation, I think the new reality is an opportunity to ramp up artistic collaborations to create multimedia works that draw on and reflect social, political, and psychological disruption. I'm envisioning artists and writers coming together like an ad-hoc Works Progress Administration. In addition to the work we do in private, we need to be deliberate about collective art-making. This also means doing more place-based art—work that is performed in nontraditional venues, and work that is open to nontraditional audiences. Personally, I would like to collaborate on a new musical entitled Political Flu. What is it? That's what the collective will figure out.... We have two choices right now: We can retreat into wounded isolation, or band together and use our writing to make a very loud noise.
Martin Blank: I'm writing and producing a show adapted from a book by Dr. Booker T. Washington called Character Building. The title says it all.
Andrea Carey: Theater, like literature, art, and music, has always provided reflection and social commentary on the times. Arthur Miller's The Crucible was a scathing indictment of McCarthyism. Tony Kushner confronted the AIDS crisis in Angels in America. In Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar offered a provocative and insightful look at Muslim America. The election of President Trump and the stark division of our nation will undoubtedly spawn strong reaction from the playwriting community. While I can't provide a list of specific ideas, I have a suggestion for promoting this important work: a playwriting competition among Baltimore theaters addressing the theme of social justice and healing. Ideally, there would be opportunities for 10-minute, one-act, and full-length plays.
Rich Espey: I decided several years ago that ALL my plays would be about social justice, and particularly about racial justice. Since then I've written The Joyce Kilmer Service Center and In Memory of Mrs. Mary Brown, both of which have been finalists for the City Theatre National Award for Short Playwriting. My newest play, tentatively called Rep and Rev, is about a mostly-white private school coming to terms with the fact that it used enslaved people in its construction. As a white person fiercely determined to participate in the dismantling of institutionalized racism, I am also keenly aware of the perspective I lack, and I am trying to be thoughtful about writing from a place of authenticity. For example, Rep and Rev is very much the journey of a white man, because that's a story I believe I can portray with authenticity.
Ann Fraistat: On a personal level, one thing I've been trying to do this week is to find ways to write my emotions into the creative projects I'm working on (where I can find appropriate places). That way I can feel like the grief might find some kind of productive home, providing a catharsis for me now and hopefully for others later when they read it. I think one of the most amazing things about theatre is how it can promote empathy. I think that's a worthy goal. In the past, it's also been important to me to provide hope in my writing. Hope can bolster people and inspire them to act, so I think that's crucial. At the same time, I think it's necessary that the hope comes from a place of open eyes and true understanding about the struggles we face—not from a place of complacency or of taking for granted that things will improve on their own. So, I guess in a nutshell, some goals of mine are: to create empathy, build awareness, provide hope, inspire people to invest in our future, and perhaps to warn them about what might happen if they don't. I believe that words have power and stories have power. I hope we can do some good with them!
D. W. Gregory: The uproar over the Hamilton cast's curtain speech to VP-elect Pence reveals an interesting rift in perception about the purpose of theatre. Those most enraged say that the speech was inappropriate; theatre is entertainment and should never be political. But theatre is always political. All art is political, because it either affirms the broader culture or critiques it. We find ourselves in a unique position. For many years theatre has been dismissed as a rich man's toy—pretty, but pricey, irrelevant to the average person's experiences. Now we discover the opposite is true. Theatre still has the power to provoke outrage—and this is the power we need to harness. Live performance connects with audiences in a deeply personal way. So this is not the time to heal; it's time to resist. If our democracy is to survive, we must all commit fully to this principle: There are such things as facts, and they can be verified. We each need to make a personal commitment to finding them out, vetting what we read and hear, refusing to jump to conclusions, calmly weighing the evidence. Only by doing this can we expose the disconnect between what the regime claims is true and what we know is true both from our own research and our own lived experience. One way to go about it is to work subversively, to draw from the past in order to reflect on our present. The parable and the analogy have never been more potent. We can find many stories about kings and queens who proved themselves to be unfit. There are true stories of tribes that flocked to false gods who promised them safety; many tales of great men and weak ones who abandoned their principles in the name of convenience and ambition. Theatre has the power to bring these stories forward, not to comfort the audience but to energize it.
Niah Kiongozi Harding: After the shock of this Trump election, I came up with a play called Holier Than Thou. The story of a Thief and Drug-dealer who all of a sudden changes his ways and becomes a Rabbi. Eventually he decides to run for city council and appeals his good-nature to the voters. Until the people he abused and stole from remind him of his past. I hope to have the script ready soon....
Murray Horwitz: Aside from the fact that the election results have given me the idea for a musical—the lesson here being the one you already know: whatever our views, we have to keep writing—a couple of things spring to mind. The first is Mark Twain's axiom, "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." So, as always, we need to observe, and if we see wrong, use satire—but it has to be principled, effective satire. Second, I've noticed some theaters popping up (Forum Theater in suburban DC is an example) that are trying to do shows very immediately responsive to current events and headlines. In the 1930s, the Federal Theater Project was somewhat successful in focusing attention on big issues, with The Cradle Will Rock and its "living newspapers." Living newspaper has never really gone away, but maybe it's time to redouble our efforts in that regard. The danger with any of these efforts is that they may simply be irrelevant—sermons addressed only to the members of the choir. We have to write shows for all people. We have to thank Lin-Manuel Miranda for (among many other gifts) showing that theater with real ideas can be superbly entertaining and popular in this day and age. We have to follow his lead. And don't forget theater for young audiences. If we're out to change the nation and the world, we have to start with the very young.
Susan Middaugh: Take a conservative Republican to breakfast or lunch. Ask: what do we agree on? It's a step in understanding how other people—an antagonist, for example—might think. More important, as citizens we need to reach out. Whether or not a play emerges is another matter.
Rich Pauli: My writing, whether comic or otherwise, has always contained a strong humanistic element. While I try not to preach (after all I'm attempting to write plays, not sermons or lectures), I do tend to like to do pieces that revolve around ethical dilemmas and values conflicts and I think sometimes it may come as something of a surprise to people to see that many situations do in fact a) raise ethical questions and b) have more than one side to them. I think of this as a very traditional approach to theater, which has always grappled with the big issues of the human condition and tried to present them in ways that make people think and perhaps provide new insights and perspectives. For me the recent election suggests that producing writing that demonstrates our common humanity and the need for empathy and understanding continues to be very important. As Mr. Spork says in "To Live Long and Prosper" (his big solo number in my Star Trek parody operetta Captain Quirk and the Love Goddess of Outer Space):
And it doesn't matter what species you are
Or if you come from here or some distant star
Or what you believe in or what you look like,
To live long and prosper is everyone's right
To live long and prosper, that is our birthright
Okay, that looks like preaching, I'll admit it. But it's a lot more palatable when you hear it set to music! In short, I guess I'm going to continue to do what I have been doing: taking a mostly humorous look at how we live and trying to demonstrate that we all have more in common, and depend more on each other, than we may think.
Juanita Rockwell: I just went on Facebook yesterday—election trauma overdose—but I did see a terrific posting by Lola Pierson [a local director] who was calling for doing training sessions in Augusto Boal's techniques for people to use for interventions, healing, etc. Also, I wonder if a Write-in could be useful? No other goal but being together in some (willing) cafe or other supportive space and writing for a couple of hours. Maybe finding a spot and a day that some people can do, and encouraging others to join us, wherever they may be.
Mark Scharf: I think a lot of theatre—and it's certainly been a recurrent theme in my own work—shows the resilience of the human spirit in the face of any and all obstacles. Not saying there aren't events that can indeed crush and destroy people—but that theatre can show how we can and do keep going. And, as corny as it sounds, provide hope.
Jerry Slaff: Let me tell you how I'm coping and healing. I'm a federal employee in DC, a public affairs specialist with an enviro agency, so we're in the crosshairs here. My favorite film is Sullivan's Travels, where at the end of a long ordeal of homelessness and time spent on chain gang, the lead character is at his lowest. He and his fellow inmates are invited to a welcoming Southern Black church, and they watch silly Mickey Mouse cartoons—and share a big belly laugh. For a time, their burdens are eased. Sure, we have to protect each other and watch out for each other more closely now, but we also need to join hands ... and laugh. Loudly. Not satire, not sarcasm, but big otherworldly laughs. I sat down yesterday and watched a Marx Brothers triple feature: Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. It did the trick. We need more insightful drama if we are to keep our country open and welcoming to all, sure. But we need to laugh. Classic comedies should be part of the answer.
Rosemary Frisino Toohey: You are so right in finding solace and strength in writing. Some have compared Tuesday to 9/11, and frankly, after September 11th I was not able to write, to create anything for a time. That was a mistake, one that I will not repeat now. We are fortunate to be members of the Arts community, the Creative community, the crowd that thinks outside the box, but I'm not quite sure how my theatre pieces can advance social justice—although I'm open to ideas. Meanwhile, I just signed up to volunteer at Esperanza Center in Fells Point because I have heard that many immigrants are filled with anxiety right now ... for obvious reasons.
Gayle Westmoreland: This election was one of the most divisive that I have ever experienced since I first started voting in the 1960s; however, live theatre has a preeminent role in shaping the thoughts and minds of audiences through story and songs. In fact, my current project, the Just Soar! Musical, is one example of a relevant story for this time because the theme song reminds us to search within, find our talent, and soar to success.