The Rise of Political Theater in Louisville

by ekramer on August 29, 2008

As this year’s political season goes into full swing, so does the beginning of the theater season. In recent years, political theatre — even in Louisville — has more widespread. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

Over the past decades, theater season in Louisville has come with a slate of plays with political content. Actors Theatre of Louisville has dealt with nuclear weapons, the war in Iraq and next month opens a play called “43 Plays for 43 Presidents.” Its profile of elected leaders includes George W. Bush appearing blindfolded with a baseball bat. These days even smaller theater companies have gotten in on the act including one this season about a gay Congressman who becomes president.

While other small companies have produced politically charged works by playwrights like Tony Kushner and Terrence McNally, a four-year old company called Finnigan Productions has staged what some local critics have called highly provocative drama.

“Cheers to having fun with the one you love, horse racing, and the complete and total absence of natural disasters!” announces a woman in a new play.Cast in the upcoming play by Finnigan Productions

“Cheers!” cry the guests of her party.

This is a scene from “Dirty Sexy Derby Play.” It’s written by company playwright Brian Walker, who pens almost all of the company’s plays. Walker’s new work takes place in May 1974, just after tornadoes ripped through Louisville, and was inspired by the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Since 2004, Finnigan Productions has staged plays about marijuana legalization, the exploitations of the oil industry and gun ownership.

Walker isn’t shy about his liberal political leanings and putting them center stage. He says he sees theater as a powerful vehicle for moving people to think about current issues from different perspectives. He says he wants to challenges audiences to test their beliefs and sees theater as source of public dialogue.

“I’m never going to go to Washington, D.C., and sign bills and run for Congress and do all of these things,” Walker says. “But, maybe someone that comes to see a show of mine or some political show in New York or Washington, D.C.— they’ll get roped into going to the theater one night and not know what they’re doing and they’ll sit somewhere and they’ll really be affected by something.”

This impulse to write such work is part of theater history. In recent decades, the most prominent work was Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which challenged Reaganism. The reign of the Bush administration has generated a slate of political theater, including Tim Robbins’ “Embedded,” which mocks Neo Conservatives.

These plays most often are born in New York and Los Angeles. So, why has this kind of work proliferated in Louisville?

Roger Fristoe was a theater critic for The Louisville Courier Journal. He says Actors Theater paved the way for smaller companies.

“Gradually they became more politically aware and so they were providing a framework for these other smaller companies to build on, explore more contemporary plays and subjects and things that were more pertinent socially, politically,” Fristoe says.

Much of the recent political theater has its critics, who say almost all of it gives a liberal point of view.

“I think the biggest problem with political theater is that it’s so one-sided,” says Brad Cummings. He came to Louisville several years ago as an actor and even had his own theater company. Today, he is chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party.

He says a lot of today’s political theater doesn’t reflect the views of most Americans, who he says have political beliefs that are just right of center. He says this kind of theater can alienate theatergoers, when it could present other points of view and benefit theater companies.

“If those people wanted to expand their audience and expand their craft, they would do well to consider making it a little bit more even handed,” Cummings says.

Even handed, in this case, means appealing to the right or even the moderate right. This season some theater companies are taking that into account. Pandora Productions, which stages plays with gay themes, is working to appeal to a broader audience and not just preach to the choir.

Other Local Companies that Have Staged Political Theater
CenterStage, Jewish Community Center
Looking For Lilith

Louisville Repertory Company
The Necessary Theatre
Specific Gravity Ensemble
University of Louisville Theatre

Wayward Actors

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