Is Theater Too Ideologically Exclusive?


For all the conversations going on in the theater industry about diversity, social change and audience engagement, I’ve noticed recently how infrequent it is that I actually end up having a distinct, contrasting opinion to the foundational arguments of the plays I see and read. This reflection comes in part as a result of starting my own theater company, and being now faced with the inevitable question of whether or not, as artistic director, I possess a moral monopoly over the work we produce. Is it better always to produce work that, at least in some way, reflects my own values, given that I need to be able to fully stand behind all our productions? Or does this restrict the diversity of viewpoints I also want to represent? But, as I approach this question of how to create an ideologically unified artistic vision, I’ve also decided it should be a much bigger problem than it actually is. Most of what I see or read I at least enjoy or agree with on some level, even if the quality may vary considerably. And if something doesn’t work for me in a play, what is it that I tend not to like? Probably craft issues—plot, dialogue, character development—or the play’s inability to create in me a genuine investment in its themes. The deeper core perspective of the playwright is usually not the issue. I may feel like the writer and I are very different people with very different concerns, but do I leave the show feeling like I witnessed something specifically in opposition to one of my core moral, social, or political beliefs? Hardly ever.

Before I go on, I should clarify what I mean by a play opposing moral, social or political beliefs. I wouldn’t count a play from a bygone decade or century that may have values that, while not at the time controversial, would be outdated or regressive by current standards. I’m also not talking about individual characters opposing an audience’s beliefs, as it’s perfectly normal, good playwriting to have a variety of characters with conflicting opinions onstage, leaving the audience to sort through these perspectives and find their own voice among the crowd (or perhaps even better, finding value on multiple sides and wondering at their reconciliation). I’m instead referring to the argument of the playwright, who may not be represented in any one person onstage but whose intention guides the overall value statement and sense of justice behind the work. How often do we encounter work we feel is ideologically unjustified or simply flat-out wrong? How often does the curtain go down and we are left in the audience feeling genuinely deconstructed or even on the defensive?

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One of the reasons this doesn’t happen so often is because, of course, the theater world skews overwhelmingly liberal, and I use that word more broadly than just the political definition. While it is true that most theater artists are democrats—just scroll to the bottom of this analysis of campaign donations and click on the pie chart for the performing arts—a general “liberal” or “left of center” ideology is also associated with certain scientifically observed behavior patterns (where you eat, what hobbies you like, personality traits) and value systems as well, as explained in this fabulous TED talk by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (which you should watch, as I reference it throughout the rest of this article). Using his breakdown of five key universal values—preventing harm, fairness, ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and purity–that inform an overall disposition, liberals tend to prioritize only the first two, while conservatives prioritize all five. And don’t we see this reflected in the plays that get written and produced? How often do we see plays that prioritize the value of respecting traditional social institutions, that prioritize loyalty to one’s group over rebellion, or prioritize distancing ourselves from spiritually or physically unhealthy behaviors? Usually, instead, equality and avoiding harm are the primary agenda.

Charting values across the political spectrum (via Patheos)

Look the political pie charts again and click the writers chart. How many playwrights are democrats? All of them! There are actually more environmentalists and even more union organizers who lean conservative than playwrights. But, as Haidt points out, having too homogenous a group is actually a bad thing, because it traps the group in a restrictive moral matrix, and because all five moral values—not just avoiding harm and promoting fairness—are needed to maintain a healthy society. And if I look carefully, I can see how all five of them are crucial in how I respond to a play’s ideology.

So, to look at how these values work in practice, let’s take the musical Dogfight, which I find ideologically unconvincing. While some may appreciate the musical’s love story, I find the “reformed cad” trope that often occurs with men in romantic stories problematic, and Dogfight relies heavily on this concept. Eddie begins the play as a cruel, boorish marine who secretly invites the sweet but naïve Rose to a dogfight, a competition with his friends to see who can find the ugliest girl the night before they leave for war. After deceiving her and publicly ridiculing her, however, Eddie feels (sort of) bad about it and invites her on a real date, where they fall in love and she loses her virginity to him before he goes off to war the next day. So how can we evaluate my ideological aversion to this play using Haidt’s five value system? Well, despite the play’s attempt to dismiss Eddie’s awful treatment of Rose, his effortless redemption contradicts my understanding of the concept of avoiding harm. This is a more “liberal” value so perhaps it’s to be expected from my liberal theater leanings. But I also see my value of authority, which can include social pillars like love or justice, contradicted, as my conception of love requires intimacy, selflessness and a certain level of intentional commitment. Holding up Eddie and Rose as an example of love, especially after they’ve only known each other for an emotionally brutal couple of hours, does not match my interpretation. It also violates my interpretation of purity—the value that regulates what we do to our bodies, be it food, sex, medicine, etc.—for similar reasons, as their sexual encounter, intended by the play as a endearing coming of age moment, instead reads as gross and off-putting considering what a jerk Eddie’s been. (This may seem like excessive moralizing, but from the reviews of the recent production by BoHo Theatre in Chicago, I can see other critics objected to their relationship for similar reasons.)

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Dogfight Second Stage Theatre
Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena in Second Stage Theatre’s Dogfight, (via The Hartman Group)

Looking at another supposedly “conservative” value, I can see my sense of ingroup loyalty opposed in a play like the Tony-nominated Next Fall, which bases its central conflict on gay Christian Luke struggling in a relationship with atheist Adam. While the play has some charming moments, for someone like me who is a committed part of the quite populous Progressive Christian movement and a straight man who regularly worships alongside numerous people in the LGBT community, seeing the play literally state that “Christian” means opposing gay relationships or believing in a literal heaven or hell, without clarifying a particular denomination, feels like a disservice. Not only does it reinforce a stereotype about my group and suggest that playwright Geoffrey Nauffs doesn’t really know the full dimension of what he’s writing about, but it also means the faith issues in his play don’t make a lot of sense, as Luke, who shows no real denominational loyalty, could probably solve many of his hangups by simply switching denominations. (To refer you back to the career/politics pie chart, you’ll see most religious leadership is actually liberal). And for the final value, fairness, I think about Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which is wonderful in most regards but does take an oddly lenient approach to marital infidelity. For Stoppard’s characters, affairs are justified in the name of love, but for me, beginning a new relationship behind your spouse’s back isn’t fair to the person being deceived.

So what to make of all this? Well, clearly even liberal playwrights like me use the same values conservatives would in evaluating the work we see and read. The divide between liberals and conservatives is not in what we value, but how those values are expressed. So why are there no (or practically no) conservative voices in theater when they are so prominent elsewhere in society? When we say we want diversity in theater, do we really mean it? Or do we only want diversity in race, gender, background, etc. as long as no one is writing anything that directly opposes anyone’s beliefs? What were to happen if, hypothetically, a major regional theater were to produce a play that was excellently written, nuanced, captivating and non-preachy, but ultimately carried a pro-life argument, encouraged conservative gender roles or admired the legacy of Ronald Reagan? I have plenty of friends and family who are conservative. They enjoy the arts, and I hope it goes without saying that they are not bigots or waging a war on women (especially since some of them are women). So why do I fear that some in the liberal theater community would be inflamed by such a programming choice and fall back on bigot/war on women stereotypes? We say we prioritize the value of equality, but would we really be willing to put it into practice and let the other half of America have a voice in our industry too?

We may not always agree with conservative stances, or even our liberal colleagues’ opinions, but psychology shows both liberal and conservative values are necessary, and when a group is too homogenous, it isn’t healthy. We need diversity. Conservative work—or more realistically for the current, near-universally liberal climate, liberal plays like Clybourne Park or White Guy On the Bus that directly challenge liberal comfort—could encourage us to focus on loyalty, traditional authorities and purity in our plays that we may be neglecting. Work that actively challenges our ideologies, whether coming from our liberal tribemates or new conservative voices, could open us up to new ways of thinking, or at least help us empathize with the real people who hold those opinions.

Haidt’s research, summarized in this conservative article and elaborated on in this podcast by On Being, also shows conservative people are much better at understanding liberal positions than liberals are at understanding conservative positions. We are guiltier of creating an echo chamber than they are. And so I close with a question for our readers—when was the last time a play genuinely challenged your values? What was this experience like? How might we create more situations like this? I’m of course not speaking for all theaters, but as a community, we tend to complain about safe programming choices. But if we aren’t willing to attend or write genuinely challenging work, should we really be surprised when they don’t produce it?

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Sean Douglass
Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago's annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He also hosts the CFR's podcast The Scene.