THEATER IN 2060: Distortion/s - a manifesto for the Playwrights’ Center on their 45th birthday

The industry
H. Adam Harris

It’s hard to imagine the state of theater 45 years from now. Mainly, because I’m trying to imagine the state of the world 45 years from now.

Now, right now inside our theaters:
We create. We make magic.
We cut old lines, we craft new ones.
We give fantasy form, color, and breath.
We seek to “engage”.
We wrestle with ideas/ideals/issues.
We Weep. We Laugh. We Repeat. 
Now, right now outside our theaters:
They are praying at Standing Rock.
Highways echo, “Black Lives Matter”.
We talk of borders, of terror, of refugees.
“Brock Turners” walk free.
Marriage equality hasn’t given us equity.
And of course - Guns. Guns. Guns.

Each audience member that enters our theatrical world, comes to us through that outside world. Each of them arrives with their history, their shame, their joy, their hope, and most importantly their imagination. We take them on grand journeys through different lives and different ways of being. With our artistry we free them from the everyday…for a moment…then we release them back out into that world. Today, I wonder, in that brief instance, what have we truly done for them? What more can we do for them? Who are they, this audience of ours? Who will they be? Who are we? Who are we to be? I believe, at the root of the audience, at the root of the artist is the citizen. That citizen is who we need to focus on for the next 45 years.

I have no doubt that in 45, the world of theater will have reached new heights. The classics of that future time will be the new plays of today. The walls, the stages, the rooms where plays take place will be profoundly different. The definition of a “play” will have expanded, contracted, and expanded again. Technology will give free reign to our creative impulses, giving new meaning to “theatre magic”. What a time it will be! Yet, I’m thinking of MLK, who often reminded us that our technical progress should not outpace our moral progress. In 45, I hope our desire for equity and diversity moves beyond our season selection. What good are a diverse selection of plays, produced by one cultural aesthetic? Here in the Twin Cities will diverse casts still outnumber the diversity of our audiences? In 45, will our desire for gender parity have exceeded how many Kilroys we produce? If we pare the field, will we have razed the brush of misogyny? Will we have eliminated the patriarchy from our interactions with one another in rehearsal, backstage, in the lobby, or even at the bar? In 45, will our desire for access extend beyond the borders of class? Can our seats be filled with a variety of languages, abilities, and identities? Just how radical, can we get? In 45, how valuable can we make theater for each and every citizen?

When I first arrived in Minneapolis I took a class titled “Blacks in American Theatre”, taught by Lou Bellamy, founding Artistic Director of Penumbra Theatre Company. In that classroom, I learned about myself, about my history, and I held onto a quote by Loften Mitchell, “There has been a deliberate distortion of an image”. Let me break that down for you. “Has Been”: That’s the comforting part of that quote, has been, meaning then, not now. “Distortion”: Folks generally agree on that part we acknowledge the twisting, the perversion of our understanding of each other. “Image”: Loften’s image was originally of blackness, but I encourage you to think of that and more. Think about that outside world, where we chant and they chant. We vote. They vote. Us vs. Them. Them vs. Us. “Deliberate”: That’s where things can get difficult. For many it’s hard to accept that the distortion has been intentional. That here and now, the vortex we find ourselves in, is due to a system of our own making. A system made up of the infinite and minute ways we allow inequities to exist in our lives and therefore in our theatres. In 45, I hope theatre artists will be working to fix what is broken outside our walls, and therefore inside our walls. 

To mend, requires an acceptance that we are all complicit. That we have not done enough. Yes, even we liberal-open-minded-down-for-the-revolution-progressive artists have not done enough. We, especially we, regardless of our artistic aesthetic, need to examine our moments of privilege. Investigate the effect our biases, unconscious and conscious, have on the work we make. The work we produce. The work we claim “will change your life”. We need to question the way we grant, the way we give, analyze the what and the how of our funding. We cannot continue to retreat inside for applause, while outside we lament. In 45, I want a theatre that speaks to each of us. That says you, each and every one of you, regardless of your differences, your politics, your race, your class, your language, your ability, you, you matter. Your ancestors matter. Your voice matters. Your laugh matters. Your heart matters. Your life matters. In 45, every child should see their lives onstage reflected back to them with accuracy and care. I want people, from down the block or around the way, to look at any of our buildings, big or small, old or new, repurposed or established and know, there in that place, is something of value. A piece of you, for you. A story you can weave into the fabric of your life. A play that can relieve you of your burdens or encourage you to pick up someone else’s. Our two worlds may never be perfect, but if we truly try, I believe we can find harmony in all this discord. In 45, who knows what future horrors we will witness; but I sincerely hope, that we, citizens, will wield theatre as a tool to heal ourselves, our audiences, and our worlds.

About the author

H. Adam Harris

H. Adam Harris is a Minneapolis based actor and teaching artist. He works at the intersection of theatre, education, social justice, and community engagement. Recent credits include The Snowy Day, The Jungle Book and How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Children's Theatre Company. He  has also worked with the Guthrie Theater, Pillsbury House Theatre, The History Theatre, Frank Theatre, and New Epic Theatre. He is a proud Penumbra Company member, credits with Penumbra include The Owl Answers, The Dutchman, The Ballad of Emmett Till, and The Amen Corner. He is a member of the Ten Thousand Things Artist Core, credits with the company include The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Dirt Sticks, and The Seven. H. Adam is the Associate Director of Programming & Lead Teaching Artist at Penumbra Theatre Company; a resident teaching artist with the Guthrie Theater and the Children’s Theatre Company, and faculty at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. BFA, University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Actor Training Program.