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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Over the weekend, as you may have heard, our vice president elect went to the theater to see Hamilton. During the curtain call, the actors embraced the moment to thank him for coming and to express concern that the diversity on stage and the spirit of political debate that Hamilton represents would not be represented by our new president. This being the age of the dependable internet, what a Broadway audience witnessed was quickly shared around the world for a global, virtual audience.

Barely eight hours elapsed before our soon to be twitterer-in-chief's feelings were bruised and he pecked out the following, "The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!"

What happened next was the eruption of a twitter storm worthy of Lear on the heath. The theater community was offended, the new establishment was offended by the audacity of the cultural elite to "harass" a distinguished audience member. Among my favorite tweets, "Trump’s so angry at theatre, he's gonna try to build a fourth wall."

So what happened? The beginning of a new culture war? An affront to dignity? A huge smoke screen?

If this were a script and not a tragic reality, I'd go back and look for the inciting incident. What set off all these events?

For the cast of Hamilton one imagines it was a messenger moment. The stage manager, or maybe even the secret service, enters with the news "Mike Pence is coming." From there, we can imagine the string of events that led to a noble protest from the stage.

But if we look to our antagonist, what drove him to tweet? What incited him to action? Was it that the sacred space of the theater had been suddenly sullied by a challenge to his Number Two? Or could it have been the news of a $25 million settlement for a fraudulent university?

While I'm not exactly sure what all the theatrical outrage amounts to, it does seem pretty clear it kept Hamilton above the fold and fraud below. I'll let the political journalists tackle why that's meaningful (you guys are on that, right?). Let me tackle what this means for the arts.

While I'm loathe to admit that Trump has taught us something about the blood red heart of our body politic, he has taught us something about the state of our theater: we have lost our power. Theater, to its peril, has become a safe space. Think about it. People are shocked that someone spoke to them from the stage.

There was a time when that wasn't called a protest, it was an aside.

What's on most of the stages in our country and in our city, is safe. As the theater struggles to compete with an on-demand world, we’ve focused on entertaining and preaching to the choir. People go to be distracted .not to be challenged. We've gone to sleep politically and artistically. Ironically, at the same time Trump has twisted the liberal language of the "safe space" to neuter an art form, he’s also offered us a clear artistic call to action. If the theater wants to regain its power, it needs, like the cast of Hamilton, to speak directly to it’s audience.

I hope we still know how to do that.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo: Craig Schwartz

CREDITS

Host:
Anthony Byrnes

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