Why artists become activists: It’s about more than the election
It wasn’t Trump. It was December 2012, and the shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School so shook Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith that she almost immediately got busy, accelerating her protest mind-set and organizing a rally.
“Suzanne and I were on the train coming from New York,” Smith says of her longtime companion, Suzanne Blue Star Boy (they married in 2014), “and this came out on my feed. It was a sock to my gut.”
A month later, Smith wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post and led a rally on the Mall for gun control. It put the most public face she could muster on her personal activism, which she said she did “as a private citizen.”
At the same time, Smith was steering her theater toward a political identity that has sharpened dramatically over the past few seasons. John Strand’s Antonin Scalia drama “The Originalist,” Lisa
Loomer’s abortion law history “Roe,” and Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Valerie Plame scandal “Intelligence” are recent marquee attractions, and just weeks after the election, Smith announced Arena’s 10-year “Power Plays” program to create 25 topical-historical plays, one set in each decade of the country’s history.
“It shows an investigation of what it means to be an American,” Smith says of the series, which had been in the works but was announced earlier than planned because of November’s unexpected election results. “That’s the time we’re in. That’s how we answered it.”
The art-activism relationship has notably heated up since President Trump’s election was met with demonstrations and an ongoing “resist” position. Yet for artists such as Smith, the imperative has been rising for years to blur or erase any barrier between personal conviction and professional creativity.
Directors, dancers and musicians have been motivated by such issues as Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the 2008 financial collapse to speak personally and to shape their creations. The most direct activists believe that the times call for art that’s as explicitly connected as possible. “I’m just not interested in doing ‘Julius Caesar’ as a way of talking about contemporary problems anymore,” says Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre. (Dove said this before the fracas over the Public Theater’s Trump-as-Caesar staging in Central Park.)
Incidental activists, on the other hand, such as Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello or choreographer Kyle Abraham, say that the connections are hardwired as part of art’s traditional role. “It’s how Aristophanes talked to society,” says Zambello, whose recent selections have included “Champion” (about a gay boxer) and the capital punishment opera “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes, political readings are inescapable, given the social moment.
“‘Activist’ is such a loaded word in some ways, or label,” says the New York-based Abraham, whose works include the topically themed dances “Absent Matter” (around Black Lives Matter) and “Untitled America” (prisons). “I make work from my perspective. As a black, gay choreographer, the work is always going to be politicized in some way.”
Mosaic Theater Company’s founding artistic director, Ari Roth, actually lost his job at Theater J battling over artistic content dealing with Israel, yet even he puts the activist label in perspective. “If I was really committed, I’d be out there working harder for change, working more on the ground and less in the theater,” Roth says. “But we who have chosen the arts love the art more than the cause. Otherwise we’d rearrange our lives.”
By committing to the art, the performance scene’s political radar has been sharpening for years. And in the nation’s capital, where until very recently political work was regarded as a tough sell, few have been as personally and professionally aggressive as Smith.
“If I were to say that any time in my personal history is anything like this time,” Smith says, “I would hark back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the whole country was on fire.”