An Evening Without Kippy Winston, Wherein the Author Attends the Season Finale of REAL TALK/KIP TALK

Artists are not great at being citizens.

Lucy Sexton said that during the season finale of Real Talk/Kip Talk, and that idea underpins the rest of this article. I think that’s called a lede.

I was informed on my arrival at the experimental theater at Abrons that, in my official duties representing Culturebot, there was a seat reserved for me. And there it was, just up the risers on house left, next to a seat reserved for my good friend Alex Borinsky. I was surprised to see that Alex, too, was representing a news organization: Der Spiegel, the magazine of record for the endlessly charming Teutonic peoples everywhere. Nearly every seat was promised to some representative of some journalism heavyweight from Le Monde to Variety. Slyly mocking in its self-congratulation was this smattering of saved chairs for powerful media companies, but it also served to poke fun at artistic recognition and, perhaps inadvertently, emphasize the importance of the local (another major theme for this review): no mention of Kippy Winston or her media empire would likely show in these well-regarded rags, but they would appear in Culturebot. I’m proposing a new motto for this publication: Our reach may not be wide, but it does have a marginal effect.

So began my first reverie of the evening. This marginal effect that arts journalists have is a puzzling one: the creators of the journalism tend also to be the creators and the consumers of the art. One might term this feedback between the overlapping consumers and creators of downtown theater an echo chamber, of the same type that has been comprehensively blamed for a much lamented November defeat. My concerns over spinning ideological wheels was interrupted by the beginning of Real Talk/Kip Talk. And what a marvelous beginning it was as the excellent theme song was performed by the ever astonishing Starr Busby. We were soon informed, as anticipated, that Kippy would be unable to join us this evening because of some mishap in her jet set itinerary. Eliza Bent would be the host. Did any of us expect it to be different?

I am aware that my personality when viewing theater tends towards the cynic. Being reminded by Bent that this evening would be spent largely in the discussion of activism revved the cynic engine in me. Bent set the table for the exploration of activism by telling about her own experience with it. While a student at Boston College, she was a member of a group of, well, let’s just call them “future leaders” because that does a pretty good job summing up the innuendo in the capitalist-patriarchy vocabulary without submerging me into a pit of helpless despair. Part of that group of these “future leaders” was organizing a yearly trip to Appalachia to perform community service. This act, among the group, was deemed “doing Appalachia.” The audience chuckled appropriately at this. Bent was not one much for community service and was skeptical of the intentions of this group intent on entering hillbilly country to perform good deeds. Aha! Bent and I were kindred spirits in our feelings towards activism. Bent, as though reading my mind, needled me by asking, in a bit muffled microphone introspection that she used frequently during the show, “can cynicism be a type of service?” I was heartened; I thought, “Yes! Absolutely! I’m doing it right now!”

The scripted portion of the evening was, naturally, quite charming, as all Bent performances are at their fundament. Bent stepped into the role of the elusive Kippy as a faux arts journalist (a “fauxnurlist” (that was the best approximation I could come up with)), Bent’s husband played himself in a stroll through the park, and several downtown luminaries reenacted all the past terror and strife in developing the first two Real Talk/Kip Talks. It was funny, it was touching, it inspired moderate anxiety. Everything that one hopes for in a Bent piece was there. The majority of it was being filmed by a camera and displayed on a television giving the entire event that endearing, low-fi public access talk show vibe. I couldn’t help but be terrified for the scripted portion to end and the interviews on activism to begin. Ugh. Oi. But so it began.

Diana Scholl, social media manager for the ACLU, was the first up. Bent and Scholl perched atop exercise balls for the interview. And, oh, the cynic in me was fed quickly. Scholl mentioned that the ACLU would probably be challenging the defunding of Sanctuary Cities as a violation of the 10th amendment, which she professed to knowing nothing about. Here it was. It’s common to be clueless on the Constitution of the United States of America, even those professed experts and defenders of the integrity of the sacred founding document of these United States. This moment was, nonetheless, representative of the helpless flailing that I and many of my acquaintances are guilty of when it comes to matters as complex as constitutional legal challenges to the federal government attempting to withhold funds to accomplish political goals. We hear that such and such thing may violate such and such federal law or statute, or that some vaguely worded portion of the 35th Amendment might forbid the founding of an all Evangelist exclave on the lunar surface with the goal of bringing Jesus to the universe. We then restate these points as fact, reassuring ourselves that what we are saying is both true and comprehensively the right-thing-to-believe. The PK cynic was going full throttle at this point, and I was thoroughly prepared to spend the rest of my time nitpicking half-considered arguments about activism and social responsibility. Intermission and refreshments stalled my negative spiral for a moment.

As I sipped my wine and ate my rugelach (what Bent play is complete without an Eastern European sweet?), I began mulling the importance of art having a wider impact. Reverie #2. How does it help to make the same points to the same group of people who already agree with you? How can these ideas and performances possibly scale to a national audience? An old Mac Wellman aphorism popped into my brain: “Don’t talk about investing in characters. It’s a play, not a fucking bank.” An uncomfortable feeling began somewhere at the back of my brain: theater isn’t a tech startup. Why should it be required to scale to a wider audience? Isn’t it more valuable to the local than to the regional, national, or international? But that would have to be put on hold for a moment for, lo, the panel began.

A group of artists and arts administrators joined Bent onstage for a discussion of art in the Era of Trump. Despite my intermission reverie, I was pre-underwhelmed for platitudes about how what artists do is essential, that the world couldn’t work without artists. But this panel would have none of my cynicism. George Emilio Sanchez spoke of artists’ special fitness for government because we knew how process works. Lucy Sexton exhorted JACK to secure rehearsal and office space at a new building across the street for little or no money. Amy Khoshbin will be running for city council. It was a remarkable.

The real beauty of the Real Talk/Kip Talk was not its endless self-reference or its anticipated punnery. Those things have their own charm. The real beauty was the assertion that another name for the much-maligned echo chamber is community. I sat and watched as theatrical practitioners discussed with each other how all of us can have a greater impact beyond the theatrical sphere, and every bit of it was local and actionable. Communities are places for the incubation of ideas that may not have survived in more agonistic environments. They are places for these ideas to develop to the point where they can hold their own in public discourse. Considering how stacked the deck is against insurgent ideas in a structurally conservative country like the United States, it is all the more important that we defend our echo chambers as long as they are useful to us. 

Which brings us back to artists not being great citizens. One way that this is definitely true is that our work is local, but our political focus tends to be national. Real Talk/Kip Talk is hyper-local: only a couple dozen people in NYC get to see each iteration. This episode put forth the notion that our politics and activism should be focused on the local as well. New York City is especially suited to this task as a metropolis whose local government has the money and power to stand up to the federal government’s machinations. We can’t effect all the change we want, but we can accomplish quite a bit in the face of the orange menace. Artists don’t have to be bad citizens, and we can be particularly effective citizens if we, like Real Talk/Kip Talk’s latest episode, cherish and utilize our local influence.

Oh. Also, everyone got gift bags, which included water in a box. Theater is weird.

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