The first impulse, of course, is to run.
Between August 30 and September 2, nearly 50,000 Republican party delegates, press representatives and supporters will invade New York City for the 2004 Republican National Convention. The mere thought of streetcorners and sidewalks littered with over-fed, cherry-cheeked neocons sporting Bush-Cheney regalia is enough to send any reasonable person screaming for the city's exits. Suddenly, far away doesn't seem anywhere near far enough.
But wait, not all of the natives are leaving town. Equally incensed and inspired by the Republicans' arrogantly cynical co-opting of 9/11 for partisan political gain, a growing wave of grassroots political theater is rising to engulf the city in ideological alternatives before, during, and after George W. Bush is in town. Think of it as an ongoing community dialogue offering credible alternatives to the empty bombast certain to be emanating from Madison Square Garden.
"I see theater as a place where ideas are actively shared," says Zachary Mannheimer, Artistic Director of the Subjective Theater Company and one of six "delegates" comprising the UnConvention: An American Theater Festival, a Brooklyn-based coalition of politically active theater groups set to stage provocative works in the very shadow of MSG August 27 through September 11. "Civic dialogue is the logical next step from demonstrating and protesting. Protesting must evolve. Otherwise, it becomes stale."
Mannheimer also sees theater as a natural vehicle for instigating community dialogue on topical issues and, rather than abandoning the city to the Republican onslaught, he sees their convention as an opportunity to seize, and to spin in directions that both undercut and overfly the repressive ideology of the GOP.
"Nowhere else can you create a project with so many people, beginning the process of sharing ideas, and then opening this up to a larger group, your audience," says Mannheimer, adding: "But this is where most theater stops."
Indeed, this is one limitation the UnConvention aims to break free of. With Subjective's partners One Year Lease, Stone Soup Theatre Arts, The Kiva Company, Stages 5150 and The Management Company, the UnCon offers 16 straight days of "creative multilateralism" featuring panel discussions, workshops, debates, and voter registration opportunities in addition to fresh, thought-provoking theater. All in the effort to promote, encourage and stimulate dialogue on the issues leading up to what may well be the single most important election of a generation, on November 2.
"The power is in the unity of six diverse companies who have one goal in mind: to create change," says Stone Soup's Nadine Friedman. "In the streets of New York, we will witness multiple agendas and a variety of ways to display dissatisfaction. By deciding to engage in productive, creative protest, we will automatically have the capacity to alter people's awareness."
Providing an atmosphere that goes beyond "where most theater stops"— one conducive to dialogue and discussion— is integral to both the concept and the structure of the UnConvention.
"The first step towards inducing change is getting people to believe that there is hope for change," observes Ianthe Demos, co-Artistic Director of One Year Lease. And while the carefully-shepherded Republican delegates will more than likely be lulled only by the neutered blandness of mainstream Broadway shows while in town, the UnCon's core target is a group potentially much more fertile, and one which will still be here long after the Republicans have packed their tent and gone away.
"There are many efforts in this country to mobilize the generation aged 20-35, and I think this is the right way to go," notes Subjective's Mannheimer. Indeed, this is the demographic that, coming of age during the thieving debacle that was Election 2000, rightfully tends towards apathy and cynical alienation in regards to the electoral process, specifically, and government as a whole. Yet, if the wanton, spendthrift hubris of Bush's first term is any indication of what to expect from his reelection, this is the very age group that will certainly pay dearest and longest from another four years of Republican rule.
While hoping especially to reach and motivate the younger age bracket that may not have yet bothered to vote, the UnCon's lineup of shows is diverse and challenging enough to engage citizens of all ages. Besides Subjective Theater's presentation of Karel Capek's savage satire of war, The White Plague, Stone Soup's The Trial of God, which is based upon playwright Elie Wiesel's Holocaust experiences, and One Year Lease's presentation of Jean Anouilh's Antigone, three new plays will make their debut at the UnCon: Stages 5150 offers Randy Anderson's KtP, about a former child genius who has developed a new weapon of mass destruction; Entrenched in the Oath is the Kiva Company's drama fashioned from letters and interviews with soldiers and their families trapped in the war on Iraq, and This Jungle of Cities is the Management Company's modernization of the early Bertolt Brecht play.
The UnConvention won't be the only counter-RNC event going on, by far. Imagine04, for example, is a six-day, five-borough extravaganza that will surround the convention with more than 200 theater, film, dance, interactive art, music, performance art, poetry, and visual art events, including Mouths Wide Open's The Republic in Ruins, an intriguing musical examination of the culture of war set for performance August 31-September 2 at Washington Square Church.
"The great opportunity we can see in this dire and alarming time is that people are waking out of the sleep of apathy and beginning to consider ways they might affect the world around them," says MWO's Noni Pratt.
It is voter apathy and indifference that the Republicans are counting on to sustain their administration. If there is an overarching purpose that links the UnCon, Imagine04 and other counter-RNC festivals and performances, it is the drive to inspire and educate, to motivate and to turn apathy into action.
"The UnConvention should impact people not with Bush-hating rhetoric, but with images of the worst that can happen when we don't protect our rights, and the rights of others," says Stone Soup's Friedman.
Indeed, for an insular, secretive administration that thrives on fear-instilling, vaguely-supported "terror alerts" and the perverse logic that constitutionally-assured citizens' rights need to be steadily chipped away in order to better "protect" us, an informed, motivated voting populace could go a long way towards becoming Bush-Cheney's worst nightmare.
And the UnConvention's core members see the festival not as an end in itself, but rather the beginning of "a momentum-building movement up to the election," as OYL's Ianthe Demos puts it.
"It would be great if the UnConvention could mean more than getting rid of George Bush," says Nadine Friedman. "It's for the pride in our city and our words, it's the need to bring people together at a time when we're being forced to fear and disconnect from each other. It's knowing that there is great hope and possibility in our future, that the UnConvention exists."
To which Subjective's Mannheimer adds, "We work together. The artists engage, the activists/organizers mobilize, and then we move this out of New York City and across the country."
For a detailed schedule of the Unconvention’s offerings, see their website: www.theunconvention.org
Brook Stowe is a playwright, theater writer and editor of www.theater2k.com.
The Brooklyn Rail and theater2k.com have partnered for up-to-date coverage of RNC theater protest events. Check out theater2k.com for daily new articles, essays and reviews by our joint staff of NYC playwrights and arts writers!
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.