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Letter from the director: St. Louis Political Theatre Festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 12, 2008 - When I turned 21, my mother wrote to theater and film stars asking them to send me birthday greetings. One letter in particular changed my life, from Lucie Arnaz (daughter to Desi and Luu-ceeee!) and her husband, actor Laurence Luckinbill. Lucie wrote the letter, but it was Larry's P.S. that hit me like a shot of Red Bull after a long night of altered consciousness.

He wrote, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it."

Six years later I started a new theater company built entirely upon that P.S. And now New Line Theatre is in its 18th season of provocative, alternative, musical theater, dedicated exclusively to politically and socially relevant theater. Larry was right.

Then in 2006, we decided we should gather a bunch of local companies to produce politically themed theater in the weeks leading up to the election. That first St. Louis Political Theatre Festival was a big hit, featuring nine local companies producing 11 shows, attracting great local press as well as some national press. When I brought up the idea again this year, 12 companies stepped up, with 15 shows.

Why political theater? Because throughout history, the times of greatest tumult are also the times of the greatest theater - in America in the 1930s, 1960s and '70s, but also in Elizabethan England and in the Middle East today. During the Depression, the American theater became increasingly political, with shows like Waiting for Lefty, The Cradle Will Rock, Power, One Third of a Nation, It Can't Happen Here and many more.

Once America entered World War II, political dissent and political theater faded away.

But when the '60s arrived with renewed political and social unrest, the theater returned to the fiercely political, with shows like Hair, Viet Rock, Cabaret, McBird, US, Tom Paine and Futz. But the materialism of the '80s and '90s lessened the public appetite for political theater.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and Bush. Now, political theater is back, and it's healthier and more fierce than ever.

Playwright Arthur Miller has said, "I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world." We agree.

After all, most theater is political. Some shows are more wholly political like Assassins, Cabaret or Hair; some only partly so like Li'l Abner, Hairspray or Ragtime; and some even subliminally political like Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, The Rocky Horror Show or Spring Awakening. But politics is almost always there.

Broadway casts became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) when American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion.

Every choice made by writers and directors was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values. No, No, Nanette was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes was about America's preoccupation with celebrity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about America's reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism. It was all political, and also a hell of a lot of fun.

But don't people go to the theatre to escape? No, I've never believed that and I never will. They go to connect.

I embrace the idea that artists are the shamans of our tribe. We are the ones chosen to tell our stories, to document our civilization and our history, to make sense of our world, to start conversations about everything that matters in our lives. Shamans are the intermediaries between the natural world and the spiritual world, and I can't imagine a better definition of a theater artist.

Those of us involved in this Festival believe that live theater is one of the most powerful tools we have for social and political change, appealing not just to the intellect but, more important, to the emotions and to our primeval need for stories that make order out of the chaos of our world.

In what is arguably the most important and most exciting political season in decades, the theaters of St. Louis reaffirm our commitment to involving the people of our region in the thrill of relevant, live theater. It may challenge you, provoke you, inspire you,or shake you to your very core, but it won't leave you unchanged.

I dare you to tell me you'd rather just escape.

Festival schedule

Immediacy Theatre Project 

JOHNNY A CANNON II: JOHNNY DESCENDING

St. Louis Shakespeare  

KING LEAR

  • Aug. 15, 16, 22, 23 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 17 & 24 at 2 p.m.; Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
  • 314-361-5664
  • www.stlshakespeare.org

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis  

FROST / NIXON

  • Sept. 3-28, 2008, call for show times
  • Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road
  • 314-968-4925
  • www.repstl.org

Nonprophet Theatre Company  

THE PATRIOTIC FREEDOM BINGO MACHINE

  • Sept. 5, 8 p.m.
  • Off Broadway, 3505 Lemp Avenue
  • 314-752-5075
  • www.nptco.org

Stray Dog Theatre  

REGRETS ONLY

  • Sept. 11-27, Thurs.-Sat., at 8 p.m., and Sept. 27 at 2 and 8 p.m.
  • Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
  • 314-865-1995
  • www.StrayDogTheatre.org

New Line Theatre  

HAIR

  • Sept. 11-Oct. 18, Weds.-Sat., 8 p.m.
  • Washington University South Campus (formerly CBC High School), 6501 Clayton Road
  • 314-534-1111
  • www.NewLineTheatre.com

The Orange Girls  

SCORCHED

  • Sept. 12-28, Fri. and Sat. 8 p.m., and Sun. 2 p.m.
  • Anheuser-Busch Studio Theatre at COCA, 524 Trinity Ave.
  • 314-520-9557
  • www.orangegirls.org

West End Players Guild  

COPENHAGEN

  • Sept. 19-21, 26-28, 8 p.m. Fri-Sat; 2 p.m. Sun
  • Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 N. Union
  • 314-367-0025
  • www.westendplayers.org

St. Louis Actors' Studio  

ANTIGONE  (Jean Anouilh's)

  • Sept. 19-Oct. 5
  • Gaslight Theatre 358 N. Boyle
  • 314-458-2978
  • www.stlas.org

That Uppity Theatre Company  

COMING OUT STORIES 2008: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS

  • Oct. 11 (National Coming Out Day), 8p.m.; Oct 12, 3 p.m.
  • Playback Workshop Theatre
  •  Missouri Historical Society, Forest Park
  • 314-995-4600
  • www.uppityco.com

Stray Dog Theatre  

PIPPIN

  • Oct. 23-Nov. 8, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. and Nov. 8, 2 and 8 p.m.
  • Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
  • 314-865-1995
  • www.StrayDogTheatre.org

Upstream Theater  

BLOOD KNOT

  • Oct. 23-Nov 9, Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.
  • Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand
  • 314-863-1077
  • www.upstreamtheater.org

St. Louis Actors' Studio  

9 PARTS OF DESIRE

  • Nov. 7-23 (check for times)
  • Gaslight Theatre 358 N Boyle in historic Gaslight Square
  • 314-458-2978
  • www.stlas.org

Bill Chott  

COMEDY ON PARADE

Nonprophet Theatre Company  

LAURA'S BUSH

Scott Miller is the artistic director of New Line Theatre. 

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