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By Barton Bund
How did theater change after 9/11? I would like to say that there was a major artistic shift, a dynamic sea-change. Our world was feeling it. But the theater, the brief abstract and chronicle of our time, fell into a kind of limbo.
I have seen very few works of art in any genre that I felt conveyed the proper response to 9/11. Some say films like The 25th Hour or records like Bruce Springsteen's The Rising were definitive works, with a sharp eye toward the tragedy. But I felt that while their heart was in the right place, their eyes and ears weren't. Were these 9/11-inspired works of art really significant beyond their political statement? Yes and no. If you like it, you like it. In the cases of these I mentioned here, I liked them. I suppose The West Wing did a nice job too.
But no one knew exactly what to do or say. The attacks of 9/11 were too big, too cinematic. Film is a brilliant medium for carrying power in imagery. Music is magic. Beauty and form, emotion and quick delivery to the senses. In theater, we have to put it into words! When we, as a company, were looking for a way to respond, we found we couldn't. Not right off the bat.
Then the war broke out. When Bush waged war in Iraq, we had a lot to talk about. We found inspiration, and success, in theatrical acts of protest. Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge became our flagship production. It was one of our first shows to reach large audiences and make a political statement at the same time. It was about the inhuman treatment of illegal immigrants in America. The early 21st century put fear and anger into our everyday actions. While the government led a war against terror, a parallel mission was launched to smoke out illegal residents, and we got pissed off about it. Add a cup of rage to the batter, and it tastes horrible, but it's good for you. We were pissed-off theater artists!
The following year we took a different plunge, and the surprise hit of our season was In the Heart of America by Naomi Wallace. It was written about Desert Storm and the first Iraq War, but we tried to hide that as much as possible. It felt up-to-the-minute and raw. We gave our audience an abstract, impassioned look at the brutality of war, and the sexual politics within the armed forces. It was intense and rewarding, on so many levels. It was wild. It remains, to my mind, one of the best-written plays about war in general.
I would also include our 2006 production of The Glob, which I finished writing on Sept. 12, 2001. It started off as my unifying, almost patriotic response to the tragedy. But five years later when we produced it, we were embroiled in the Iraq War. The Glob became our most obvious, blatantly anti-establishment piece. It had drugs, government conspiracies, STDs, teenage promiscuity, and more goodies. Again, we enjoyed some success. And this time, we really wore the message on our sleeves. No beating around the Bush. We showed boldfaced contempt for everything, and we sang it and danced it! Never underestimate musical comedy as a weapon of change.
I look back at the ruin our world is in since 9/11, and I question the value of theater in general. Are there other weapons at our disposal besides words and actions on a stage? We couldn't instantly become a theatrical-political weapon right after 9/11. We really didn't know what to do. But soon, we had to decide: Was it better to take the risk and make a statement, possibly alienating a portion of our audience? Can we find a quintessentially American play that might unify both sides of the argument? Are we wasting our time putting on plays?
But then I remember that actors are citizens of this world. And when I see their fears and doubts transmitted onto the stage in performance, I know that we are still creating a dynamic and vital art form.
It's still necessary.
I found the musical comedies to be of tremendous value. I finally understood them: They make us laugh! They are as necessary to the theater as anything else, because they make us feel good. Likewise, I understood Macbeth differently. Last week I worked with an Iraq war veteran on the Dagger Speech. He gets it. We all find our own ways to deal with the trauma of war.
Theater, like life, is strange and abstract, but my god, it's exciting! Don't get too political, try and have some fun!
Here is my opinion, and think what you want: We haven't had a definitive play that deals with 9/11. Not yet.
The theater has yet to find an equivalent to The Hurt Locker - something that tells the right story, something that hits in a genuine way. Likewise, we have yet to find a satisfying theatrical response to Katrina. To the Gulf Oil spill. It's okay; we know it is still something worth seeking.
Something as large as 9/11, it's more than one can take in one two-hour sitting. We still have a desire for answers, as theater artists. But we trip on our faces when we try to provide the answers ourselves.
ABOUT BARTON BUND:
Barton Bund is the founder and artistic director of the Blackbird Theatre in Ann Arbor. He is the director of How the Other Half Loves, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the composer/librettist of The Glob and Patty Hearst. His commentaries appear frequently on EncoreMichigan.com. For information about the Blackbird Theatre, log on to www.blackbirdtheatre.org.
Copyright 2011 Barton Bund
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