Prickly Ears: The Post-Pandemic Years

I was recently asked “Did the Pandemic change your theatre?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

The biggest change is in the audience. Their ears are “more prickly.” They are more easily offended. And many of them tend to take political sides, and indeed, politicize issues that were not intended to be political at all.

The good news is that FST makes every effort to counter the prevailing winds. Our goal as a theatre is to ask questions, not provide answers. We do not seek a political point of view, but we pursue the human point of view.

Therefore, you will note our play selection is typically pretty well balanced. And we pride ourselves on our diversity at FST.

We are proud of the FST staff that every day looks more and more like all of America. And most importantly, we pride ourselves on the plays we present that seek a “Diversity of Thought.”

Diversity of Thought is, for me, one of the keys to unlocking excellence in art. Because a theatre that is singular in thought becomes rigid and frozen in time.

I irritate some of the FST staff because I prefer to wait until the last minute to make decisions. If I am asked, “When can you have a decision on this?,” my response is usually, “What is the latest possible moment I can decide?” I say that because I know for a fact that two things will change: A. I will change. and B. The world will change.

The world, our society, the theatre audience, and our universe at large are in constant flux. Everything is constantly evolving and changing.

We do not want a theatre frozen in time. We want a theatre that is nimble, in tune with the universe, in tune with the audience, and up to the moment. We are a contemporary theatre. We want a theatre that is plural in all things. A theatre that reflects the complex world in which we live. A theatre that exists to ask the questions that we all share. A theatre that exists to identify the issues, ask the questions, and encourage a vigorous debate or discussion on the stage and in the community. We are not a theatre that pretends to have all the answers.

Let me demonstrate my point through a quick examination of this year’s season of plays on our Mainstage.

Each of the four plays in the Season has a ‘tool’ at the very center of it. That tool was created by humans, consumed by humans, and is directed or guided by human hands and minds. Each of these tools is “neutral.” The tool does not have a value system or point of view. The humans who use the tool imbue it with their own point of view. And then, when different values clash, we introduce democracy and politics — another human invention — to attempt to control the conflict, which is innate in the ebb and flow of human values and points of view.

Pictured (Left to Right): BillyD Hart, Jordan DeLeon, Cornelius Davis, Travis Keith Battle, Jahir L. Hipps, and Cordell Cole in Something Rotten!. Photo by John Jones.

The wonderful thing about theatre is that it is fundamentally apolitical. The theatre itself is a tool. It does not have a value system. It is not a Democrat, or Republican or Libertarian, or an Independent. It is a tool.

It depends on how we use it. Today, in this new, over-politicized environment, nearly every play is seen as political, leaning left or leaning right. And perhaps even trying to manipulate us. Whereas I just see it as another tool with people doing their best to tell a story and to reveal the issues of our day.

Here is the Season with the tools at the center in a nutshell:

The first show of the season Something Rotten! was about the Bottom Brothers and their quest to write the next Big Hit! The tool at the center of this show is a play, itself. We relish in watching the Bottom brothers bumble through life, comedy, and song as they invest in writing a play, creating the next ‘big hit.’

The next play in the season is What The Constitution Means to Me. It is the journey of a young woman who wins prize money for college by giving speeches on the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the U.S. Constitution is the tool. In the case of the Constitution, it is a living tool. It can be changed by humans. Amended by humans. Because it was created by humans — with all their strengths and weaknesses. And we are all affected by it. This is a funny and insightful play. It personalizes the Constitution. It puts flesh and bones on the Constitution. The female character in the play is a liberal. However, the play itself does not take a political stance.

Pictured: Deysha Nelson and Amy Bodnar in What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo by John Jones.

The next play in the season is Network. It is based on the 1970s movie of the same title about a newscaster who cracks under the weight of too much media, too much news — both good news and bad news — and too much of everything. The tool here is the media. In this case, television. Maybe the television of the 1970s is a metaphor for our social media today and how people use and misuse it for their own purposes, other people’s purposes — both for good and for bad. The tool, television, is not bad. It has no values. It is a tool. It is how we use it and how we consume it. It’s up to us.

The last play of the season is Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!) about a small-town city council and how they attempt to handle the town’s dwindling tourism by bringing the remains of the famous native American war hero, Joe Whitefeather, to be buried in their town. With the very best of intentions, they step into the morass of “cultural appropriation.” The tool here is local government, and it’s a delightful comedy about how people can woefully misuse their local government, even with the very best of intentions.

Let me repeat. It’s a comedy.

The great thing about the theatre is that it is about humanity. And the great thing about humans is that, as a species, humans can be very very funny in their bumbling attempt to get it right.

At FST, we are interested in people. We are interested in how people use the tools at their disposal. FST is interested in how people behave. We are not interested in twisting the truth or attempting to win people to our point of view. We are more interested in their point of view.

Pictured: Rod Brogan and Lawrence Evans in Network. Photo by John Jones.

We view theatre like a sporting event. It’s no fun if the game is rigged and you know who is going to win. The same can be said of good theatre. No one likes rigged theatre. That’s just old-fashioned propaganda.

At FST, we stand up for all that’s good and true and honest in the American Theatre. And the best of American Theatre stands up for all that’s good and true and honest in the American People.

So, if you come to FST and think we have a political “agenda,” please think again.

We have a human agenda. We want to come together every night in the theatre to measure what it means to be human. To explore what it means to be alive.

The one enduring truth is that every play you see at FST will either confirm or challenge your value system. Maybe a little bit of both.

And I think that every play will also give you a little more insight into the human condition. And maybe even, a little more insight into yourself.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre.

Richard Hopkins, FST’s Producing Artistic Director