08 May

In Trump time, gaps spanned by arts and “Sweat”

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama was announced last month in New York, after spending months on Broadway.

But two years ago, the winning play spent the summer in Ashland, Oregon. And you could say that the prize has more to do with Ashland than New York.

Then there’s all the time it spent in Pennsylvania.

In 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented the world premiere of “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage. Taking place in a working-class bar in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, it depicts factory workers as they are detached from their jobs and, as a result, from each other. It portrays a deepening desperation that was later conveyed on a somewhat larger stage last November.

“Lynn was very prophetic, wasn’t she?” observed Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, last week. Her insights were sharpened by months spent in Reading, Pa., talking to people and picking up the anger that became a prominent character in both her play and American politics.

“Sweat” is part of a major project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” a projected package of 37 new plays commissioned by OSF from American playwrights, inspired by the 37 recognized plays of Shakespeare. The project began with a grant from the Collins Foundation; since then, others have come aboard, including the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

So far, 32 plays have been commissioned, including eight more commissions given out last August. Ten plays have been already produced in Ashland, with a couple of others presented by partner theatre companies.

“Lynn was one of the first writers we reached out to,” recalled Rauch, and the project supported the time she spent in Pennsylvania. “Lynn winning the Pulitzer Prize is like a confirmation of all that effort.”

“American Revolutions” has already had multiple other confirmations. Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way,” about the beginnings of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, opened in Ashland in 2012, and another production, also directed by Rauch, went to Broadway and won Tony awards for best play and for Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson. So far, “All The Way” has had 21 theatrical productions and a version on HBO. Its sequel, “The Great Society,” went from Ashland to Seattle.
“Roe,” about the plaintiff and the lead attorney in the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and what’s happened to them since, was produced in Ashland last year, and is now running in Washington, D.C. “Indecent,” an American Revolutions commission about the uproar caused in 1923 by a play about a lesbian affair, began at OSF’s partner Yale Repertory, and is now on Broadway. “Sweat” and “Indecent” are currently the only two plays running on Broadway written by living American women. Last week, “Sweat” was named a Tony nominee for the season’s best play.

Apparently, as Shakespeare figured out, there are insights and understandings to be found in history plays, maybe especially at a time when it’s hard to find answers anyplace else. The New Yorker described “Sweat” as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era,” a definition that by itself carries some complication.

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration sent Congress its proposed 2018 budget, zeroing out both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, a plan driven by a president whose viewing tastes seem largely limited to Fox News.

“The irony of that is not lost on me, and it’s very painful,” noted Rauch. “Endowment support has made an enormous difference.”

In the current budget passed by Congress last week – just in time to keep the government from shutting down, so who says Congress has no sense of drama? – the endowments not only survived, but got slight bumps, from $148 million to $150 million. Apparently, congressmen decided enough people were already angry at them without adding the arts.

“Activating both sides of the brain prepares people to be innovative and creative, both critical to growing our 21st Century economies and creating good jobs,” declared Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., co-chairs of a House caucus advocating a greater role for the arts, in response to the Trump budget. “The arts also help us to be empathetic, which makes our communities better.”

NEA grants go to every state, Bonamici noted last week, and are particularly significant in rural areas where support is otherwise limited – a value particularly striking in 2017.

“We live in such a polarized time, people are really trying to look to the past,” says Rauch about the American Revolutions project. “Empathy for our fellow citizens is at the heart of the matter.”

The great possibility of art, of drama, is that it can offer a look into other people’s lives.

Which, as we keep discovering, is better than being constantly surprised.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/7/17.

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