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Handouts and Histrionics

Article II: Flag Codes


"Invariably, when my colleagues say that 'Art is suffering,' what they mean is, 'The art that we like is suffering.'"


One of the shows in my company's repertory is a political sketch comedy, entitled All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage. The show image is a parody of the crucifixion, complete with nails, blood, and a tattered American flag. I'm very fond of this image, largely because it accomplishes exactly what I think a show image is supposed to: it brings in the audience that's going to appreciate that very crude, irreverent style of comedy, and warns away those who are likely to be offended by it.

When touring this show to one of the more conservative Midwestern towns, I was hoofing it to local businesses, handing out posters to put up. At one of these venues - a shoe store, I think - a smiling older white man came out and asked what I was advertising. I handed him the flyer, he looked at it, and froze. I remember chattering away on my elevator speech as I watched the muscles in his neck tense up. I could just feel this horrible tension in the room, and I couldn't identify the source.

As I was merrily chattering away, I saw something hanging around his neck. I leaned in closer to get a better look, and then my heart sank, as I realized that I'd just handed a picture of my naked yellow ass, draped in the American flag - to a Korean war veteran. I'd just handed both of us this horrible, awkward situation, and I wasn't sure what to do about it.

After a moment he looked up again, and something passed between us that I couldn't really explain; he flashed me a tight-lipped smile and said, "We can put this up." And it really left me musing on that odd, surreal relationship between artists and soldiers: how they put their lives on the line, to defend our right to criticize their decision to do so.

Of course, I did all of that musing later; I got the fuck out of there.

When the image was seen by my father - a Chinese immigrant who's lived in at least four different countries - he pulled me aside and lectured me intently for several minutes, leaving me with the warning that "he didn't want me to end up on a list." I had to chew on that statement for a while before I figured out what he was talking about. Oh, I realized. He means a blacklist. And the idea of some dark-suited government official, showing up at the doorstep of one of my colleagues, and instructing them not to hire me on the basis of my politics, is such an absurd image that I can't help laughing.

You see, the fact of the matter is that the Federal government isn't going to censor our work. And it's not because they have so much respect for our individual rights, or the opinions of our few admirers. The reason that the government leaves us alone is because we are perceived as being completely irrelevant to them.

After all, the protests over the instigation of the Iraq War represented the largest international protest in the history of our species - and the instigator, President Bush, cavalierly dismissed the movement as a "focus group." In the face of that, what possible relevance do our struggling Midwestern theatre troupes have to them?

It's a common drunken commiseration among my colleagues, to lament the death of art in this country. I always take issue with that assertion, pointing out that Hollywood blockbusters are a multi-million dollar industry, and high-end recording studios aren't doing much worse. Okay, they say, what we mean is that live performance is suffering. I find that difficult to credit, too, in an age where stand-up comics and rock stars regularly sell out massive amphitheatres like Carnegie Hall and the Excel Energy Center. Okay, they say, what we mean is that theatre is suffering. Can that really be said to be the case when so many Broadway musicals have held unbroken theatrical runs for not weeks, not months, but years at a time?

Invariably, when my colleagues say that "Art is suffering," what they mean is, "The art that we like is suffering." Which is a fair gripe, but far from the same complaint. And when you ask them why, their argument boils down to any one of countless variations on the statement that "Our audience isn't as smart as we are."

I recall one director lamenting that "Kids these days would rather see the new Spider-Man movie than most of the plays that are being written!" Well, yeah. I would rather see the new Spider-Man movie than most of the plays that are being written. At least an action movie is going to guarantee some form of entertainment: but too often, what I see in my colleagues' work is nothing more than a manifestation of their contempt for their audience.