THEATER

  
Q. To what extent do you believe that theater can act as a force of social change? Does it usually just preach to the choir and reinforce the audience's own opinions?

Since I started doing interviews, Iíve answered the "preaching to the converted" question more than any other. It seems to me predicated on an unthinking use of the terms "preaching" and "converted." Itís not as if all preachers, including for instance John Donne, were merely dispensers of predigested, soundbite rhetoric and clichť; good preachers are gifted articulators of the thorniest, juiciest, most dangerous, most contradictory problems, dilemmas, controversies. Itís not as if the "converted" are always only Moonies lacking any sort of spiritual liveliness or freedom of thought. Quite the contrary. The converted, the congregation, united by certain beliefs, share amongst themselves bewilderment, despair, hope needing amplification, confusion needing examination and elucidation, and avenues of interesting and productive inquiry. Lockstep congregations are a sure sign of a moribund faith, of the absence of anything Divine. A good preacher rattles her congregantsí smugness and complacency, and congregants to do the same for the preacher. Good preachers are exhilarating to listen to, and the converted have a lot to think about. So this "preaching to the converted" question doesnít address all religious practice, or all theater ó just crummy religion and inept theater.

If oneís intended audience is "the unconverted," one is an evangelist. The evangelizing playwright usually makes dreary plays, cautious plays which try to woo and seduce hostile, recalcitrant people, people less enlightened than the playwright ó plays of condescension, in other words, plays which arrange their glib, necessarily simplified certainties in neat rows and send them forth, marching into battle. Ugh. Thatís a degradation of the power of theater, of the purpose and power of art. As I said, art suggests, describes, explores, tests ideas; art doesnít issue marching orders. There are far better, more effective ways of organizing people than playwriting. And while art educates, itís never sufficient as a means of instruction; at some point a more reliable narrative must be sought. Art should strive for a level of complexity and depth that mirrors the complexity and depth of life, and for that matter that mirrors the complexity and depth of politics.

Although there are times when a good, nasty skit is called for. 

The genesis of the "preaching to the converted" question is the experience we have all had, sitting in a theater being told over and over something we already know: "Itís bad to be mean to gay people, itís good to be gay! Itís bad to attack other countries that havenít attacked you! Itís bad to be living rich, luxurious lives while there are people who are homeless!" Etc., etc. But I think the intended audiences for such messages and such plays, the "unconverted," are for the most part elsewhere, and wouldnít be moved in any significant way from their ideological positions if they were in the audience; meanwhile, the converted are bored silly, being told sedulously what they learned to be true decades ago. Who goes to serious theater? People who are curious about life, curious about illusion and reality, people with probing questions rather than dull convictions, people seeking solace from loss and injustice, but who seek solace not in denial or amnesia, but rather in rich, sometimes painful, hopefully illuminating visions and dreams ó in serious art. Who are such people? Most likely not the delegates to the G.O.P. convention.

-- Tony Kushner