Michael Gene Sullivan rouses the theatrical rabble

Earlier this week I attended the Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference, and amid much useful information about the state of local and national theater, and in between the networking and general schmoozing, I heard a voice of startling sanity.

Michael Gene Sullivan, a local writer/actor/director, gave the closing inspirational speech, and it was a doozy. Sullivan, in case you don’t know, is the head writer for the San Francisco Mime Troupe (not that kind of mime – they specialize in sharp political satire and sticking it to the man). He’s a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, and his adaptation of George Orwell’s
1984 was directed by Tim Robbins for the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles.

Sullivan, an old-school San Francisco rabble rouser in the best sense, was fired up from the start of his speech as he pointed out that the $700 billion bail-out does not really compute because there are fewer than 7 billion people on the planet, so that’s about $100 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

Then he let Wall Street have it: “These Wizards of Wall Street – whose genius was not in buying low and selling high, but in keeping the rest of us so hypnotized with hype, so distracted with glitter, so backed into a terrifying corner with their economic shock and awe that Americans failed to do the obvious – which was hunt them down, beat in their doors, drag them naked, screaming and crying into the streets and redistribute their wealth and internal organs all across this great country of ours.”

Then he asked a question: “And who wouldn’t want to do a play about that? Doesn’t it sound better than remounting Wind in the Willows…again? Who wouldn’t want to do a play about the people of this country actually waking up and grabbing these pencil-necked free market pirates by their pitiful comb-overs?…What would Moliere do? Skewer the greedy weasels on a comically hot spit, then slowly roast them over a fire of their own lies!”

Sullivan challenged the theater makers in the room to challenge themselves and their audiences – a difficult thing to do in economically challenging times. “If theater doesn’t … challenge us to be our better selves, our braver selves, teach us about one another – if we as artists and audience don’t leave a show smarter, better, more human people than before, then what we saw was not theater. It was television.”

But here we are in a country that doesn’t value the arts, where the government provides precious little funding for the arts and much of the slack comes from charitable foundations and corporations. Sullivan, of course, warns against becoming corporate shills for the sake of survival, but he warns just as vehemently against entertainment for entertainment’s sake, which he equates with Internet porn.

“Internet porn is not out to change the world, it’s not looking to show the injustice, racism or sexism inherent in our society. It is not a demand for equal rights or even a mild reminder that things could be better. Its sole purpose is to entertain its audience – normally one at a time and probably in a cubicle. Porn, like commercial TV, is not meant to be cutting edge or politically challenging. It is the perfect example of entertainment for the sake of entertainment. And you know what you never hear about with Internet porn? A lack of funding. You never hear about porn producers struggling over a grant application.”

So short of becoming the theatrical equivalent of Internet porn (fluffers included), what’s the answer as we head into the next Great Depression? Sullivan frankly admits he has no idea, but for theater to continue to survive, as it has done since the Ancient Greeks, theater must remain dangerous.

“Each of us has the power and talent to undermine institutional stupidity and crime. We will not only say the Emperor is wearing no clothes, but also that his testicles look a little funny…And that feeling of immediacy, of danger, of theater being not a refuge from the real world but a starker version of my experience of the hope and engagement in a time of injustice – that’s what I want to create, and that is what all of us can give our audience. Hope.”

The conclusion that Sullivan comes to is that theater has to become important to people’s lives.

“We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the `theater community.’ We have to train ourselves and others to think of us as a beloved and necessary part of the larger community – a part that is vital to telling their stories, vital to helping us all understand ourselves better, vital to enunciating and being a part of the fight to make this life fairer, more equitable and just.”

There it is. A rant. A manifesto. A big slice of common sense, which is in short supply these days.

You can read Michael Gene Sullivan’s complete speech here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-gene-sullivan/my-speech-to-the-membersh_b_133102.html

And while you’re there, read his other posts. He’s a terrific writer whose sense of humor never obscures his sharp points.

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