Is “conservative theater” an oxymoron? Columbus playwright Robert Cooperman aims to find out.
On a rainy nightin early January, adjunct professor Robert Cooperman and four students gather at Ohio University-Lancaster to rehearse a play. They have no time to lose. In less than a week, this production will be one of six short plays featured in a new event Cooperman organized: Columbus' first-ever Conservative Theatre Festival.
The play's plot revolves around an everyday situation: A teenage daughter asks her parents what's for dinner. But as the actors run through their lines, it becomes clear that Cooperman is depicting a social conservative's worst nightmare.
The parents, both women, define themselves as the teen's “mother-father” and “father-mother,” as they appear to change their gender identities on a daily basis. They refer to their offspring, who's clearly feminine, as their “daughter-son.”
Not only do the fluid gender roles make pronouns confusing, but they threaten to make dinner an impossibility. One parent refuses to cook because she's identifying as a man today, while the other refuses because she's identifying as a woman and doesn't want to play a stereotypically female role.
Standing by is a fourth woman whose slinky miniskirt and sparkly, stacked-heeled shoes mark her as a prostitute. When the “daughter-son” finally rebels against her parents' extreme ways, it becomes this woman's job to seduce her back into the progressive fold. “You want to take me to a safe space?” she purrs.
The actors, all 19 to 21 years old, deliver their lines with conviction, though their personal political views run the gamut. Alexandra Downour, who plays the teen, describes herself as “more toward the liberal side,” while Sara McClaskey says she's “probably more conservative” and the prostitute-playing Samantha Schmelzer refuses to put a label on herself. “I don't know enough to define myself, honestly,” she says.
Only Brooke Hamlin describes herself as an out-and-out conservative. “I'm the odd one in the arts field,” she says.
“You and me both,” Cooperman interjects.
Cooperman formedthe nonprofit group, Stage Right Theatrics, and launched The Conservative Theatre Festival to counter the liberal hegemony of the theater scene in Columbus and elsewhere. For that very reason, he expected difficulty organizing the festival. “The local theater community is overwhelmingly liberal,” Cooperman says. Yet despite liberals' reputation for tolerance, he adds, “they are also overwhelmingly intolerant of other points of view, dismissing them as dangerous or irrelevant.”
And the national theater scene is no different, Cooperman believes, as evidenced by the reaction to an earlier event that became the template for his festival. In 2012, a liberal theater professional named Cara Blouin organized The Republican Theater Festival in Philadelphia. Cooperman later interviewed Blouin for Stage Right, a podcast he briefly hosted. As he explains on his festival's website, she told him her project brought her both aggravation and joy. “She talked about being blackballed from some theatre companies (don't you love tolerance?), but also about how fulfilling it was to present a festival and challenge her thinking,” Cooperman wrote on the website.
Given Blouin's experience, Cooperman says he anticipated his right-leaning festival might face pushback. And he got it, in the form of insults and brickbats from the online group Playwrights of Facebook. However, he had little time to worry about the critics in the months leading up to The Conservative Theatre Festival, as he had three more pressing concerns: finding playwrights willing to write plays with a conservative viewpoint, finding actors willing to perform such plays and finding an audience willing to watch them.
Surprisingly, the first task proved to be the easiest. Equally surprising, the pushback Cooperman received made it even easier.
Boston playwrightPete Riesenberg considers himself a liberal. Even so, he was eager to submit his short play “That N****r's Crazy” to Cooperman's festival. “I wouldn't have given this festival two looks if it hadn't been for some of the vitriol that Bob faced when he posted the announcement that he was going to have a Conservative Theatre Festival,” Riesenberg says. “Actually, I was kind of disappointed in some of my fellow playwrights, who are all the time talking about tolerance except when it's something they don't agree with.”
Riesenberg adds that he was struck by one of the defining tenets of Cooperman's festival: “Disagreement does not equal hate.” That helped to alleviate any doubts he had about submitting his comedy, which is about a white man who gets into trouble for saying the name of a classic Richard Pryor album out loud in the workplace.
Also motivated by the online vitriol was Louisville playwright Gary Wadley, who submitted a satire on liberal academics that was inspired by Bertolt Brecht's “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” “I wrote ‘The University Chalk Circle' for this festival because [Cooperman] got so much guff on the Playwrights of Facebook,” Wadley says. “They really made fun of this festival and this man.”
A third playwright, C.J. Ehrlich of the New York area, may have been motivated to contribute by her experience with Philadelphia's Republican Theater Festival. She has fond memories of the event, which she contributed to and attended. “I think the audience was positive about everything,” she says. “I was told it was a mix of political identities, but people were respectful.”
Ehrlich's play—“Spare Some Change,” a repeat from the earlier festival—is about the political argument that ensues when a homeless man begs for a handout from a Wall Street trader. Other plays featured in Cooperman's festival include “The Truth Will Out” by Ron Frankel of Florida (about a young man who surprises his liberal father by admitting he's a Log Cabin Republican) and “A Subject of Inquiry” by Carl Williams of Houston (about a teacher who gets into trouble by allowing intelligent design to be mentioned in his science class), as well as, Cooperman's own play, “Drop the Barbie!”
Though he had expected to attract only a handful of play submissions, Cooperman received 38 from around the country and beyond. That solved one problem, but it left him with the challenge of finding actors to perform works with viewpoints that many in the theater community find controversial or even repugnant.
“I thought it would be hard to get actors, and it was hard to get actors,” Cooperman acknowledges. That's one reason he decided to recruit OU students for his own play, though he stresses that talent was also a factor, as two of his cast members have had starring roles in university productions. Each of the festival's other five directors had to recruit his or her own actors, and Cooperman admits it wasn't always easy. “We did have some trouble,” he says. “But I'm very thankful to the actors who did work with us.”
Once the plays and casts were set, Cooperman's final task was to find an audience. That also was a challenge, as the usual tactic of posting an announcement on Facebook got little response from the liberal-leaning theater crowd. “There are a couple who said they're going to attend,” he says, a few days before the festival. “But other than that, no, it's pretty much been ignored by my Facebook constituents.”
As a result, Cooperman was forced to rely on other ways of publicizing the festival: buying ads in neighborhood newspapers, leaving fliers at libraries, encouraging cast members to invite their friends and families. He's asked following the Lancaster rehearsal if he's nervous about attracting a healthy-sized audience. “I am,” he admits. “Right now, ticket sales online are slow, but I've had a number of people tell me, ‘I'm coming.' ” He's hopeful that a fair number of people will show up when the festival hits the boards the following Saturday in the Columbus Performing Arts Center's Shedd Theatre.
“Not the 300 that the Shedd Theatre holds, but we should have a sizable audience, I'm thinking.”
The temperature outsidebarely reaches the double digits when Saturday arrives. But the weather proves to be little deterrent, as enough people show up to fill nearly half of the auditorium's seats.
What brought them there? A white-haired couple say they frequently attend theater and became curious after reading about the event in the Dispatch. Another patron, one of the few African Americans in the room, says he's not a regular theater-goer but wanted to see an alternative to the usual left-wing perspective. Still another, a woman wearing a fur coat, says she learned about the festival simply because she was walking by the venue and saw it advertised on the marquee.
Once the show gets under way, all of the pieces are received with respect. The play that generates the most laughter is “That N****r's Crazy,” written by the lone liberal contributor, Riesenberg. Some of the others garner laughs when they make pointed jabs at liberals, but the laughs are often scattered, suggesting that the audience's political views are far from uniform.
During a post-show talkback, Cooperman announces that he hopes to make the festival an annual event. Opening the floor to questions results in a number of supportive comments. The only negative remark comes from a young woman who complains that some of the liberal characters came across as ridiculous caricatures.
Cooperman responds by saying conservative theater is in its “infancy” and therefore can be expected to trade in parody and satire and their attendant stereotypes. He expresses confidence that in the future, conservative writers will find ways to put across their points of view without ridiculing those with whom they disagree.
“We're finding our voice now,” he says.