Photo (c) Beatriz Schiller. Rocco Sisto as John Bjornson, George Bartenieff as Uncle in Extreme Whether.
I am tasked with writing about censorship of the theater at the moment the show trial on the impeachment of Donald J. Trump proceeds in the Senate. How can there be a show trial in a nation predicated on the rule of law and trial by jury? How can there be censorship in a nation founded on free speech?
Money. In both cases, large financial interests are at stake. While his show trial opened Washington, Trump was in Davos speaking to the gazilonaires, denouncing climate activists, scientists and others with truth on their side, as “profits (sic) of doom”.
A day or two earlier, climate activist-artist, Josh Fox’s latest one-person show, The Truth Has Changed, was abruptly cancelled half-way through its run at the Public Theater where it was part of the traditionally edgy Under the Radar Festival. The artist had “violated” the Public Theater’s “code of conduct,” according to the Public’s press release. However, it is equally possible that powerful people voiced their upset about the content of the piece and, pressured by board members heavily invested in fossil fuels, The Public cut short its incendiary run. This is the other explanation, one voiced by Josh Fox, the artist. Other artists, myself included, have faced similar acts of silencing for our work on politically charged issues.
Naomi Wallace, a radical poetic playwright, wrote to me that Fox’s silencing reminded her of what happened recently with Returning to Haifa. She added: “I’m a great admirer of Fox’s work and even if he were remotely responsible for the ‘antics’ they accuse him of, it is the theater’s responsibility to take care of artists, to tend to them and make them feel safe… But could another reason for the cancellation be that The Public gets funding from people on their board who might not like Fox’s attacks on their corporate investments?”
In her case, Wallace is referring to the cancellation of a dramatic adaptation of a novel by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, which was co-commissioned with Ismail Khalidi by The Public, but then abruptly withdrawn from production due to pressure from the board. (The adaptation has since been produced in London to wide acclaim).
I’ve been kept off The Public stage, too, but in a more private way. At a reading of my play “Prophecy,” I was told by the artistic director that this work was “brilliant.” Three weeks later, however, I was informed in a private meeting that the play was “too risky” for The Public to produce. (Why? It interweaves the story of the suicide of a young Iraq war vet with that of a young half-Palestinian woman, the estranged daughter of a Jewish human rights worker, enraged by Israel’s 2006 bombardment of Lebanon.)
Wallace’s short play, No Such Cold Thing, about the war in Afghanistan, published in an anthology I edited, Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays, was also kept off the stage in London. Commissioned as part of The Great Game, a series of plays about Afghanistan, it was rejected as being too much about “the futility of war”— a war now 19 years and counting, with no discernible gain but misery and profits.
If you would like to experience the effective censorship that passes for artistic freedom in the United States, try writing about the Palestine-Israeli conflict, the invasion of Iraq, the US torture program (my play on that subject was funded in-part by the Soros Foundation, which no longer funds art), and, now, of course, climate change.
The country runs on guns and gas. What industries dominate the ever-rising Dow? Fossil Fuels, including plastics made from oil, and so-called “defense.” A bloated military budget is used very effectively to destabilize the Middle East and mire Afghanistan in violence. Our wasteful infrastructure and lifestyles have made the United States the biggest emitter of CO2 the world has known. To say these engines driving economic growth have no bearing on what sort of theater is produced across the land is naive. This is where the “surplus” money comes from. The majority of board members and foundations are heavily invested. They give away profits gained from ruining the environment and lives. If they were suddenly to be held to account by puny works of art, it would be mildly uncomfortable to say the least.
As James Hansen, the scientist whose life inspired my play Extreme Whether, likes to say, fossil fuels are enormously profitable investments because they do not pay for the damage they cause. If your house is destroyed by flood or fire, the fossil fuel industry does not rush to recompense. If you child has asthma or you get cancer from chemical pollutants at a plant near you, the fossil fuel industry does not pay your medical expenses.
Many artists work on the edge–I do not solely mean the edge of form, but also the edge of content. These artists make work intended to blow through the complacency of the mass destructiveness. Most artists who address war and various climate crises tend to fund the work themselves, with small grants, indiegogo campaigns, and other individual contributions. We raid our pension funds, sell what property we have (I’ve done both) and ask our wealthier relatives and friends for support. We do artistic work for free while holding down other jobs. When our artistic work reaches a point of coherence, one of the “experimental” or “edgy” venues picks it up and claims it as their own. The billing never says this work was funded by the artists; it highlights the venue’s name so they can prove to those who fund them that they produce innovative work. Tackle either the defense or fossil fuel industries in dramatic stories about their dire effects and your work is likely to be pulled, barred from stages altogether, or at best allowed a very limited run—after you’ve exhausted all your resources to bring it this far.
My play Extreme Whether, staged as a family drama after Ibsen, is about climate scientists struggling to tell the truth while being attacked, threatened, and sabotaged by fossil fuel lobbyists. Extreme Weather enjoyed a successful low-budget production at Theater for New City. Andrew Revkin, then a science writer for the New York Times, called it “pioneering and brave, laced with danger and humor.” My play was also praised by major climate scientists James Hansen and Jennifer Francis. As a result of this positive acclaim, a plan emerged for Howard Zinn’s son, Jeff, a theater director, to do a reading and then, hopefully, a full production at the Underground Theater in Cambridge. “It makes sense to do the reading – the issue is an essential one,” the artistic director wrote to Zinn.
Until, that is, a drama professor and playwright, Alan Brody, tasked for some unknown reason with vetting all plays about science that might be produced at two theaters in Cambridge, called me “an amateur” in a vitriolic email and used the word “hate” to describe his feelings about my play. M.I.T. where Brody teaches is laced with fossil fuel and defense industry funding. A very famous climate denier, Richard Lindzen, was long associated with M.I.T. where he was Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology. As Richard Lindsey, he makes a cameo appearance in my play, assaulting my reputable climate scientist-hero on television (as Lindzen has done) with claims that include, “God controls the weather”, taken from the Evangelical statement on climate change that Lindzen approves.
It is of interest, too, perhaps, that the Sloan Foundation, which funds plays about science as developed by the Ensemble Studio Theater, would also fund the chair of a notorious climate denier. To my (albeit) limited knowledge, the Ensemble Studio Theater has never used their Sloan grant money to produce a play about climate change, though arguably this is the single-most important science story of our time. I can say that Ensemble’s literary manager reacted very negatively to an early draft of mine; in fact, she was out-raged in a manner much like Brody.
Was Brody’s “hate” of my play, one of the worst things he had ever read, informed by his dramaturgical knowledge, or is he working as a guardian of the gates, to make certain that the truth about climate change denial and its ties to the fossil fuel industry does not get told in the vicinity of M.I.T.? There has never been a play produced at the Underground Theater that, like Extreme Weather, tells this story of how American climate scientists have been hounded, threatened, and smeared by industry hacks, and of what courage it takes to do their work and make it public.
Brody also wrote that I could never get Noam Chomsky to do a talkback after such a play, even though Chomsky, a friend, had already agreed to do the talkback should the play have a reading in Cambridge. He had done a talkback after Prophecy, which he called “a remarkable contribution” when my theater company finally produced it at the tiny East Fourth St. Theater in 2010. That production of Prophecy was panned by the New York Times critic, Christopher Isherwood, (since fired from the Times for a series of ethical transgressions that had to do with coddling up to rich producers). “Long and ludicrous,” began Isherwood’s lengthy screed—so if you do finally manage to stage a play on a forbidden subject, you can always be destroyed by the critics. (When Prophecy was produced in London, in 2008, it received four stars in Time Out, and high praise from Vanessa Redgrave and David Hare, among many others.)
Extreme Whether went on to a Swiss-French-American co-production in Paris as part of the ArtCop21, during the signing of the Paris Climate Accord. This production was paid for, again, by small individual donations and by a travel grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. The play was revived by my theater company, Theater Three Collaborative, in a new production at LaMama Experimental Theater Club in 2018.
At a Theater Communications Group conference, where we went to shop for other productions of the play, I was told by the then-artistic director of the Houston Alley Theater (who has since been removed on grounds of sexual impropriety) to send Extreme Whether. He had total artistic freedom, he informed me, to produce whatever he wished. I sent him the play and never heard from his again. Curious, I took a look at the Alley’s website and found a banner headline across the top: “The Summer Season Sponsored by Exxon-Mobile”
While my eco-feminist cli-fi fable Other Than We was running for just eight performances in the Downstairs Theater at LaMama, I received a request to bring the play to Egypt as part of a first-ever feminist theater festival. Travel funds must be paid by the government of the artists. Once in Egypt, funding for housing and production assistance is paid by the Egyptian government. I’ve been to Egypt three times before as an invited guest/panelist for the Cairo International Experimental Theater Festival, most recently in 2016, under El-Sisi. I have close Egyptian friends and friends who work for the UN based in Egypt. I had to patiently explain to the festival organizers, however, that my government’s consulate in Egypt would never supply travel funds for an eco-feminist play, given Washington’s official climate denial stance. (I had already been in-touch with State Department diplomats while Obama was still president, about a similar request to bring Extreme Whether to the Cairo Experimental Theater Festival. I had been told that, “at present,” my play was in-line with State Department policy–the implication being this would soon, after the inauguration of Trump, no longer be the case). Even if I were to receive travel funding from the U.S. Embassy, which I would not, the Egyptian censors were certain to disapprove of my eco-feminist play on sexual content grounds—it stars a lesbian couple, among other things.
A while back, the Rauschenberg Foundation announced a large climate change arts funding initiative, but almost immediately, their focus changed to funding arts and culture related to prison reform. Prison reform, a worthy cause, has also been embraced by the climate-denying Koch Brothers and the think tanks they fund. Prison reform provides a cover for the right-wing climate deniers to work with more liberal groups. The Koch interest in prison reform, however, is to make it more difficult to prosecute white-collar criminals. Why the Rauschenberg Foundation backed away so quickly from a focus on art addressing climate change, I cannot say. All I can do is point out, again, the tremendous wealth and investments involved.
Censorship in the United States may be difficult to prove. That it exists to the detriment of free expression is an absolute certainty.
Ask yourself what could have been more important in the last twenty years than plays that explored the true costs of our forever wars and plays that address the emotional and intellectual realities of the fact that our life on earth is at risk.
Count the number of climate change or antiwar plays produced by not-for-profit theaters across the country. There are very few.
Yet, there is no more urgent cultural engagement before us than climate change and the challenges of turning from war to peace. How are we to fully, emotionally and intellectually, grasp the fact that as Greta Thunberg says, “Our world is on fire” without nuanced cultural explorations of what this situation means and feels like? How are we to awake from our trance that life goes on as always and that “God controls the weather,” if we are not guided by artists who know the fragility of the beauty of the natural world? We need theater artists who rage against the forces of destruction—not human nature, but human greed.