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The stage as soapbox

It's a rare item in the mainstream: the play that grapples with today's social issues. To make it palatable, the emphasis is often on the personal.

January 26, 2003|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

It's one of the oldest and loftiest functions the theater has, serving as a forum for the social issues of the day. But ask many American theater artists if their work is political, and they'll squirm to avoid the scarlet letter P.

That's what happened during panel discussions at last summer's Ojai Theater Festival. "We had two public talks about political theater," recalls playwright-screenwriter Lisa Loomer, one of the participants. "I found it interesting because there were some playwrights who found the question of whether they wrote political plays offensive the way some people find the question 'Are you a feminist?' offensive."

Yet Loomer didn't, and doesn't, shy away from describing her work as political. Writing about social issues is "my urge," she explains. "It's very personal, and I don't want to be embarrassed about it. I don't have the need or energy for cynicism."

How these convictions translate to the stage will be seen this week, when Loomer's "Living Out," directed by Bill Rauch, opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday. Set in present-day L.A., the play centers on the experiences of two households: that of an affluent white Westside couple and that of the Latin American Eastside nanny whom they employ. Loomer explores the issues that underlie society's dependence on the immigrant service sector.

Yet for all of Loomer's willingness to call her work political, her peers' aversion to the term may be more than a matter of semantics. For starters, it's perceived as a commercial kiss of death.

"The problem with the term 'political theater' is that it has all the worst connotations in the world: didactic, agitprop," says Moises Kaufman, creator of "The Laramie Project," a documentary look at reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard that has recently enjoyed a run as one of the most widely produced plays in the country. Kaufman says he and his fellow Tectonic Theater Project members, who were involved in creating the play, put it this way instead: "We try to come up with new forms that address us as individuals but also as members of a community."

In this way, they are the heirs to a tenacious, if not dominant, strain in U.S. theater. "There is a tradition of plays dealing with social issues in the American theater, and some of these have been major plays," says Susan Mason, professor of theater arts and dance at Cal State L.A. "Some plays dealing with social issues, like 'Angels in America,' become enormously popular, but they seem to be the exception now."

Since the early decades of the 20th century, the popularity of social issue plays has ebbed and flowed in a way that supports historian Arthur Schlesinger's well-traveled theory that American history tends to run in 30-year cycles.

During the 1930s, two endeavors brought the socially conscious play newfound legitimacy and prominence. The Group Theatre, founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, was the first company to present the writings of such politically committed artists as Clifford Odets and Marc Blitzstein. The Federal Theatre Project was launched by Congress in 1935, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Directed by Hallie Flanagan, the Project's Living Newspaper became known for journalistic plays inspired by the headlines.

During the '40s and '50s, Arthur Miller's first major successes brought the American social issue play to new heights. Indeed, Miller's triumphs stand as testimony that there's no inherent incompatibility between social issues and compelling drama. However, apart from Miller and a few others, politically engaged theater went into a period of comparative dormancy that lasted until the brink of the 1960s.

Reflecting the upheaval of the times, the 1960s brought not only a new tide of socially engaged plays, but also troupes specifically committed to more overtly political fare, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet Theatre and El Teatro Campesino.

Yet even at its heights, socially engaged mainstream theater has remained the exception rather than the rule. One reason is economics. "Theater in the U.S. is hardly subsidized at all except for the 40 years of the NEA, and that didn't compete with the subsidies in most European countries," says Mason, whose book on the San Francisco Mime Troupe will be published in 2004. "Theater in the U.S. is primarily a commercial enterprise and has been for over a century.

"The decline in the popularity of plays about social issues in the U.S. coincides with the rise of the role of the producer early in the 20th century and the increase in theater as a commercial product. Playhouses got bigger to accommodate more paying customers, and socially relevant theater moved into smaller venues and became fringe."

The documentary approach

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