This week American Theatre Magazine ran a widely shared story suggesting that the nation’s theater companies and college theater departments spend the next year focused on the events of Ferguson and their consequences. They provided a list of plays, new and old, that the theater community “can program, read and teach that will be in resonance with this moment and this movement…” ATM (apt initials) is the mouthpiece of Theater Communication Group, the primary mission of which is to increase funding to its member organizations, the country’s leading non-profit theaters.
When TCG makes a suggestion about what theaters should be programming it’s a big deal, it has enormous influence on the non-profit theater industry and by extension the university programs that feed into it. In this case what they are urging offers some clarity about the ways in which our elite creative class seeks to indoctrinate theater artists and audiences into a very specific progressive worldview. A crucial stage in this indoctrination is the dissemination of the idea that art’s value is first and foremost based in its ability to bring about social justice.
As pleasant as it may sound, in this context “social justice” is far from a politically neutral term. It is clear from the article’s list of plays and further readings that the only acceptable perspectives on the issue of Ferguson are those in resonance with “the movement.” This illiberal insistence on group think is bad for audiences and artists. Not only does it marginalize those theater artists who may have right-leaning views, it also limits the boundaries of the art form as a whole.
Artists should not be foot soldiers marching in formation across a predesigned arc of history, they should be unique voices challenging accepted norms on all sides. Our universities should be training theater artists not political activists.
Conservatives need to take a hard look at the money spent directly by the government and indirectly by tax deductible donations to organizations, such as TCG and its members. Public money for the arts needs to create platforms for all artists to present diverse work, not feed funding into “the movement”. We need to hold universities accountable when their teaching of art turns into political indoctrination.
Make no mistake, major non profit theaters, their donors and university writing programs produce a vast number of our cultural content creators. Allowing them set to the agenda for art in America in the hyper-idealogical way offered by American Theater Magazine will do irreparable harm to the hope of an American culture based on the free and open exchange of ideas and stories.