Red/blue divide drives p'gramming for three-day event

Conference titles are usually studies in meaningless — catch-all phrases broad enough to encompass whoever and whatever might be on the agenda. But the theme of Theater Communications Group’s recent conference in Seattle — “Creating the Future: Theater in a Polarized World” — struck a chord with many of the nearly 800 attendees.

“It’s very meaningful right now,” said Susan Trapnell, managing director of Seattle’s ACT Theater. “We don’t just live in a polarized world; we’re a part of it. And the conference got theaters asking, ‘What are we doing that’s actually reinforcing the polarization, when we think our obligation is to cross that divide?’ “

The notion of the red/blue divide drove much of the programming for the three-day event. The opening-night talk was delivered by Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

Perhaps the most talked-about session was a panel on Cornerstone Theater Company’s faith-based theater cycle, which involved direct collaboration with a number of Los Angeles religious and cultural communities.

“They did a project with a mosque, a synagogue, a church. … They’re a group that’s working on where the polarization is and how to start affecting it,” Trapnell says.

For others, the theme was meaningful, but nothing new. “Salt Lake City is a polarized community,” says Charles Morey, artistic director there of Pioneer Theater Company. “The rest of the world is just catching up with where we’ve been for the past 20 years.”

PTC’s managing director, Chris Lino, reports that the level of intolerance has grown in recent years, however.

“The thing that gets dangerous is not when (patrons) write and say they hated a play, but when they say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing it.’ “

The theater copes by marketing to a number of audience subgroups separately, and posting a detailed “content advisory” about each play it produces on its Web site.

But while America’s traditionally liberal theater artists worry about how polarization will affect audiences and funding, they are unlikely to change colors any time soon. As New York based playwright Catherine Filloux put it, “You can only write about what your heart wants to write about.”

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