A Valid Way to Care

The cast of Public Forum Drama Club: Antigone, at Joe's Pub at The Public on May 10. Photo credit: Simon Luethi.

The cast of Public Forum Drama Club: Antigone, at Joe’s Pub at The Public on May 10. Photo credit: Simon Luethi.

Last Sunday, Dani Lencioni (fellow Culturebot writer) and I attended a reading of Antigone, a Drama Club reading and discussion presented as part of The Public Theater’s Public Forum Series. The Public Forum purports to present the “theater of ideas,” through a variety of programming. The Drama Club in particular presents a reading of a play, in this case Rinne Groff’s 45-minute adaptation of Antigone, followed up by a panel discussion by the evening’s actors, who include not only those who are actors by profession, but also experts in the field or themes present in the play. Sunday’s panel of actors included Groff, America Ferrera, director & critic Robert Brustein, The Reverend Dr. Herbert Daughtry, Denis O’Hare, and President and CEO of the New America Foundation Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Dani and I sat down for breakfast a few days later to continue the discussion.


S: So I’m interested in what the Forum does as a potential answer to the question of how you do politics in theater. That’s something that’s interested me for a very long time, because I feel like there are more pitfalls and ways to go wrong with mixing politics and theater than there are instances in which I’ve seen it be successful, and I think the Forum proposes a great way of doing it. Which is that instead of mounting a production or a theatrical street protest with a specific issue in mind, the Forum says, “We’re gonna have a discussion around this topic, or in this case, this play, and we’re gonna get not just theater people but the people in the field together.”

D: I was about to say, I think the key thing about the Forum is that it acknowledges that while artists do have a certain perspective, do act as a force for change, and should continue making work with a message, that maybe to have a more outward facing conversation, it’s necessary to bring people who are not exclusively artists and who relate on a completely different level to the ideas being talked about in the play.

S: Right. The artists have chosen to illuminate some aspect of an issue through the art-making, but these people have spent their lives or their professions involved in it.

D: Yeah, and it brings such an impact to the play when someone like Reverend Dr. Herbert Daughtry, who’s been the “people’s pastor” and involved with all of this civil disobedience, reads the role of Tiresius, and talks about civil disobedience–a very prominent theme of the play–in his life. So rather than the playwright in a talkback saying “Well there’s this man named Rev. Daughtry who blah blah blah…” instead he’s onstage himself saying, “I connect with this because it’s real to me.”

S: Yeah. And I also love that those people, in the context of the Forum Drama Club, read parts in the play. It’s not like we have actors up there, and they read it, and then we have experts come up and talk about what they just did.

D: Honestly, that’s my absolute favorite thing.  Rev. Daughtry was a good example, but there have been other Forums too where just the most non-theatrical people, giving them opportunity to be on stage and act a part that expresses something they have a connection to, is the most exciting thing in the world. For them, and also to watch.

S: Right, and it also reaffirms a power of the theater that I think we sometimes take for granted: that embodying the words and giving those things a face and a voice makes them more powerful somehow, and changes the way we hear them.

D: All of a sudden I cared so much about Tiresius. I had always found the role of the prophet in Greek tragedy to be so hollow, but hearing him read it I was like, “Oh, I would believe that!”

S: I like that. Like it subverts our traditional expectations of that role.

D: And — wait: for the record, my mouth is very full. This discussion is sponsored by Think Coffee — there’s something particularly interesting about this Drama Club being an ancient Greek play or a classic. And I think the easiest thing to start a conversation about (with these Forums) is just how alarmingly relevant the plays are, still.

S: I thought it was very true what Jeremy was saying during the Forum, that there’s Shakespeare and then Sophocles, and then everyone else, in terms of understanding the human experience and really tapping into that inner life and the interaction between that and the politics. It’s a little extreme, but there is truth to it. However, I sometimes wonder of our modern interpretations…how much of it is “As you seek, so you shall find.”

D: There is a thing about watching a play, or really consuming art in any form, where you are desperately looking to have your own emotions explained.

S: I think maybe my cynicism is not that “we’re looking and finding meaning because we want to,” but that there are so many meanings, and then we look for or pick a specific meaning that’s most important to us. For example, several different relevant things came up during the discussion, in regards to the individual rights versus the state rights. It was framed in terms of the civil rights movements, and all of the police murder and brutality cases that have come up lately, and also talking about LGBTQ rights, and the conflict with religious laws there, and then the whole discussion came out about gender in Antigone, and I was almost afraid to focus on one of those trains of thought at the risk of excluding the others. You know, if we make this a play about gender, we somehow reduce its other…but it WAS everything, it was all of those things at the same time.

D: Well it was, and that makes the point that the fullest conversation can come when the right people are involved in it, or a more diverse group of people. The reason all those ideas came up was because Denis O’Hare really cares about LGBT rights, and Anne-Marie Slaughter really cares about gender issues, and Rev. Daughtry really cares about civil disobedience, and I’m sure they all care about all the other things, but because of their line of work, the thing that’s most present to them is present in the conversation. And because of that, the audience can’t reduce it to just the one point.

S: Right. Another interesting thing to me was that somebody asked at the end of the discussions, “What if they’re both right?”  Because you know everybody in that crowd is not necessarily LIKE MINDED, but there is a certain direction, in The Public Theater, on the Lower East Side, in New York…

Dani whispers into the recorder: She means Liberalism.

S: Yes, I mean Liberalism, and there is a little bit of that tendency in that crowd, and so it’s not terrible for this guy to say that maybe it’s not this spirited, rebellious girl who’s in the right and attempting to combat “the man” who’s then this cold, heartless, powerful thing. Maybe she’s right AND he’s right. Where does that leave us? Which I think goes to Robert Brustein’s point (which, I’m sorry, but can he be the Greek Chorus to my life?) that it’s not Greek melodrama, it’s Greek Tragedy. If they’re both right, and both wrong, then I’ve always read Antigone as an indictment of absolutism.

D: Mm-hmm.

S: As an indictment of stubbornness, and you know, Haemon says to Creon, “There’s no shame in being flexible.” But I think Creon gets screwed in the end and Antigone gets screwed in the end because neither of them can let go of their particular bone.

D: Absolutely. And I think that though, as an audience, we want “well this person’s good and this person’s evil” because that’s easier, but in all good plays that’s not the case. Every “villain” has a justified motive, to them. And so, it’s just a constant reminder that things are not just black and white, good and evil. I actually think it sort of silly of that man to ask that.

S: Well, maybe, because the answer seems obvious, but the conversation was tending towards…

D: Well, yes. It was tending toward victimhood. Not so much the play itself, but so many of the things we were correlating it to were very clear examples where we clearly all felt like one person in the situation was the victim.

S: Right, or if not victim, because that word comes with some passive tinge to it, the “wronged hero,” and in all of these situations we’re equating those who are oppressed to Antigone, and then by default Creon becomes the oppressor, “the state” the wrong-er, and I think Anne-Marie Slaughter talked about the fact that there is a need for order. It’s not just a necessarily evil.

D: Right, like where was she talking about, specifically…Egypt. Where she’s not a fan of the regime at all, but it’s better than absolute chaos.

S: I’ve never understood Anarchists, for that very reason. Especially Anarchists who like not being run over as they cross the street…But I think the conversation becomes more constructive if you stop viewing order and any kind of authority as just a necessary evil to put up with, and start thinking of it as a constructive force for good. And you can’t do that if you want to assign Creon to the role of just the oppressor.

D: Well and, beautifully acted by Dennis O’Hare, no one could have thought of Creon as completely evil. I was like, “I want to be on your side, so badly, because you’re wonderful.” And he did say the thing of, “Whenever you play a part you think you’re right.”

S: Right, which brings us back to our point of why theater is a good forum in general, not just in the sense of the Public Forum. It just highlights the added benefit of theatricalizing or embodying something, versus just getting those people in a room and having them talk about it.

D: Yes. Theater adds a layer of empathy. It’s very easy to leave empathy at the door in intellectual discussions, especially in discussions of policy.  When the idea is to try to do good for the most people, sometimes it’s very easy to distance yourself from the small faction of people being left out and to lose empathy for the people who are left in the corner, which makes it much easier to make a decision that will negatively affect them.

S: Becoming invested in your own idea to the extent you can’t hear the other side is dangerous. And I think people were hearing each other at the Forum, which was great. I wish there were a way to multiply that. Expand that over more people.

D: So here’s a question. So we have this great discussion, at the Forum, and it affirms like “Art is great, and politics can be great, we’re a part of the human family,” and there are only 150 people in that room. So…what do we do about that?

S: Yeah. What difference does that make?

D: And also how do we, as artists, keep doing things like that? Because it is a very specific audience that comes to these types of things…

S: Right, and it’s almost preaching to the choir. Those people don’t need to be convinced of the importance of having this discussion. Which is part of what I mentioned earlier about the pitfalls of political theater, or politically minded art being so much greater than the narrow paths to getting it “right”…because when you take it to a larger audience who’s not on board with the project already, you run the risk of becoming strident or preachy, and when that happens your odds of being heard are much narrower. But if you don’t try to break that barrier and get outside that audience who is already on board with you, then are you having an impact?

D: On the flip side, the people in that room are probably all people who care about things already, but it’s really hard to keep caring, and to be vocal about caring and not just be exhausted all the time by all the things going on. So is it enough, maybe, to simply reinvigorate all the people in that room? Because I–and I’m the most in, I’m on board with the Public Forum, I work at the Public!–I walked away being like “Yes, remember to care about things today!”

S: You’re right. Just the affirmation that it’s important to care, that this is an important way to care, but also, and this comes from the involvement in the Forum of people from different walks of life and professions, that it’s not enough to just do this to care. It’s not enough to make art in a corner. That art, those issues, are inherently tied to everyone else, and you have to make that effort to tie it to everyone else. I think if nothing else, things like the Forum, and even theaters who are doing…like the Public has Hamilton, and Grounded, Signature’s got The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, [and I know there are more, those are just happening now where we work] these things touch on larger conflicts and themes, and also just affirm the necessity–not just the ability, but the obligation of art to provide a lense for subjectivity, and opportunities for empathy. That is important. Whether it’s the only thing we need to do, probably not, but that is important, and affirming that is necessary.

D: Yeah. I love what you said about, this is a valid way to care, this is a good way to care. People care in all kinds of ways, and this is a good one.

S: Because often I feel like it’s easy to feel like “Well, I’m not actually DOING anything. Anne-Marie Slaughter is DOING something. Rev. Daughtry is DOING something…”

D: Exactly. And WE’RE making plays.

S: Haha, right. But the reason that we’re still reading and producing these plays from thousands of years ago is that these are ways of talking about the experience that we have, and ways of dissecting and processing the conflicts, challenges, and complications that we have. And though I’m making a generalization here, it’s pretty safe to say artistic expression doesn’t have a place in an absolutist environment. Art and its conversations don’t have a place in environments where people aren’t willing to question themselves, art is a necessary part of questioning. Or the presence of art demonstrates that you are somewhere that that’s possible- to question and discuss.

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