Private Lives and Politics: Ruminating on Regional Theatre’s Role in the Current Political Climate

As Rochester’s flagship theatre company, Geva strives to serve our community’s collective responses to its times. While some of our programming encourages audiences to ask the hard questions about recent socio-political trends, other parts of our season offer an escapist reprieve from the outside world. These two approaches combined allow us to respond to our audience’s varied intellectual and emotional needs in this divisive moment in American history. And while these two sides to our programming often coincide, this philosophy was perhaps best encompassed by the week of March 20, 2017: a week that started with a play reading about contemporary immigration reform, and ended with the opening of a 1930s escapist comedy.

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On Monday, March 20th, we kicked off the week with a Hornets’ Nest reading of Building The Wall, a brand-new play by Robert Schenkkan. The Tony-Award winning playwright began drafting Building The Wall in October in response to anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election, and has been continually revising to reflect the latest travel ban executive orders, ICE raids, and other evolving policy changes concerning immigrants and refugees in the US. While our Hornets’ Nest readings typically feature more established plays, we felt that now was the time to have this conversation about immigration policy in our country.

Following the reading, Artist in Residence Skip Greer led a discussion on how the events described in the play relate to current immigration policies in Rochester and Monroe County, and on our responsibilities as citizens towards undocumented and unprotected immigrants. We were joined by two instigators responding to the play: Margaret A. Catillaz, a senior immigration lawyer, reflected on the challenges that undocumented immigrants currently face and the tedious process of appealing a deportation charge. John Gonzalez, a former machine gunner in the US Marine Corp, impressed on the audience that he and his fellow servicemen fight valiantly for all the people of this country, and then are heartbroken to come home to a nation so violently divided based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and political beliefs.

Our audience seemed eager to engage in these immigrant rights issues, find support in their community, and think through the legal and moral questions posed by immigration reform. Such a forum recalls the theatres of ancient Greece, bringing the polis together to confront social issues of the day while also strengthening the community through constructive dialogue. Indeed, it’s that very bond created by public discourse on controversial topics that keeps our Hornets’ Nest audiences returning for more throughout the season. (And, we look forward to having another lively discussion at our upcoming Hornets’ Nest reading of Black and Blue, on Monday, May 8th!)

Private Lives logo

For the rest of the week, the theatre remained abuzz as we prepared to open Noël Coward’s Private Lives that Saturday, March 25th. One might initially ask: How would a cheeky British comedy about rich divorcees be at all relevant to our current political situation? But when we look at Private Lives’ production history, its timing in Geva’s ’16-’17 season couldn’t be more apt.

Coward wrote Private Lives while traveling in the summer of 1929, but by the time the play premiered in England the next summer, the world had plunged into despair; the economy tanked and started the Great Depression, as totalitarian politicians (i.e. the Nazi party) rose to power. These international travesties ironically paved the way for Coward’s success with Private Lives, and the successes of similar comedies in that era: In the 1930s, the public turned to their arts and entertainment as an escape from their economic and political anxieties. Private Lives was exactly the kind of fantasy English-speaking audiences needed to distract themselves from their troubles: lush costumes and sets, sophisticated lifestyles, attractive lovers with biting wit. Coward’s characters are so rich and so privileged that they live in an alternate reality to the Depression around them, and audiences at the time just wanted a taste of that carefree luxury.

Coward once said,

I’m sick of the assumption that plays are ‘important’ only if they deal with some extremely urgent current problem. Problems? We live with them all day, every day, all our lives. Do we have to have them in the theater too? I was brought up in the belief that the theater is primarily a place of entertainment. The audience wants to laugh or cry or be amused. Swift entertainment – not strange allegories.

Given this attitude, perhaps Coward could have anticipated how Private Lives, his “lightest of light comedies,” would soothe audiences at such a trying time in human history. Still, who could have guessed that the play would continue to provide a much-needed distraction in decades to come, when the world around us fell apart yet again? The late Alan Rickman, who played Elyot in the 2001 West End revival, commented to the New York Times on the cast’s reaction to opening merely 10 days after the September 11th attacks: “We couldn’t have felt more stupid: ‘Oh, here we are doing Noël Coward.’ But I think we realized that people actually have a human need to laugh, even at times like that.”

Indeed, here we find ourselves yet again, bitterly troubled as a nation in this divisive moment in history. At times like these, we absolutely need to ask the hard questions, and hold ourselves and our government accountable for promoting “liberty and justice for all.” We need forums like Hornets’ Nest to bring our local community together, attempt to understand our differing opinions, and debate how we can collectively act as responsible citizens moving forward. Building The Wall is an essential play for this specific time in history to address pressing contemporary concerns. At the same time, we still need to take care of our mental and emotional health in order to sustain ourselves during such a trying time. Private Lives transcends its time and speaks to us today because it allows us to laugh at a timeless human fallacy and a familiar trope: falling in love with a partner who drives you mad. Comedy is the breath of fresh air that clears our minds so we can plunge back into reality with a revived spirit. As Rochester’s premiere local theatre, it is vital that Geva can provide both emotional outlets and responses to our current times: On the one hand, we offer our community a reprieve from their newsfeeds, and on the other, we also provide a public forum for our neighbors to congregate and address their concerns, when they are ready.

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