9/11, the Occupy movement, and the future of theater


For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the idea of theater in a post-Occupy world. What does it look like? How do the discourses that came out of the Occupy movement inform aesthetics?

The Occupy movement pulled the veil away from our society’s ever increasing disparities between rich and poor. It revealed the inherent elitism of the arts, where the majority of funding goes toward art that is enjoyed only by the rich, where corporate interests entangle with arts, and where a diversity of voices is not nurtured.

But this week as I was talking to Don Stolz, artistic director of the Old Log Theater, he said something that made me look at it in a different way. He said more than anything else, 9/11 changed everything. Suddenly, people stopped going to the theater. I know this isn’t unique to the Old Log. I’ve spoken to many artists, choreographers, theater makers, etc who all talk about the glory days of the 1990s, and how 9/11 caused a crash in their budgets.

Part of that has to do with different administrations, but it seems like 9/11 itself played a significant role. 9/11 induced a fear that permeated across the nation.  The market crashed, values were realigned, and things that seemed wonderful and important in the 1990s- like the arts- suddenly became less valued and important. 

It occurs to me that the Occupy movement, which nearly coincided with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, was in some ways a direct result of it. The fear and disillusionment that was sparked by 9/11 turned into anger at those who hold all the cards.

And where does it leave the arts? This week, there’s been much discussion after Bryan Bevell’s article in the Star Tribune, stating that there was a lack of boldness in the Twin Cities theater scene. There was at once an outcry over his article, declaring him misinformed and pointing out various examples of the wonderful and innovative theater that happens here, and at the same time, people who agreed with his assessment.

I tend to agree with Bevell’s observation that theater in this community is too safe, although I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think it is because of Minnesota Nice, and that theater artists aren’t critical enough of each others’ work. 

Rather, I think, theater that was “daring” in pre-9/11 era in America simply doesn’t have the same effect in post 9/11 America. Our world has changed, and it may take some time yet for artists to learn how to speak to that change.

The Occupy movement perhaps provides some answers as to the direction we must take. For one thing, we are still an enormously segregated society, and in Minneapolis this is particularly the case. Until there is more integration of diverse voices occurs in mainstream theater, we fail. This isn’t to say that theaters that include specifically diverse voices in their mission — Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Teatro del Pueblo, Theatre Mu, Pangea, Pillsbury House, etc. — don’t have a place or a need, but now is the time for the theaters that don’t specifically call for diversity in their missions — the Guthrie, the Jungle, Park Square, the Old Log, Chanhassen, etc. — to make a more concerted effort to increase their hiring of artists of color and women, and to produce plays that speak to more diverse audiences. This is not about tokenism, but about a vital need for the arts community to recognize that our society has a plurality of voices.

More than that, theater companies need to figure out how to become relevant to all levels of society, not just the upper middle class older white theater-goers who make up their audiences. Not only are ticket prices too high, but there aren’t enough options for people living in certain areas. North Minneapolis, for example has very limited options. What are the major theater companies doing to engage that population? Are they choosing plays that speak to a broad demographic, or are they doing plays that rich old white people like?

Theater doesn’t have to be dead. But unless we make a shift toward diversity, it just might be.