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Lin-Manuel Miranda: “All art is political.”

Lin-Manuel-Miranda-april-2019-chicago-billboard-1548

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Chicago, 2019.

by Lin-Manuel Miranda

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.

Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” George Orwell’s 1984, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s whole damn catalog—all are political works that tell the truth.

Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Broadway cast of In the Heights.

My first Broadway musical, In the Heights, is an example of how time can reveal the politics inherent within a piece of art. When I began writing this musical, as a college project at Wesleyan University, it was an 80-minute collegiate love story with a promising mix of Latin music and hip-hop, but it was pretty sophomoric (which is appropriate; I was a sophomore). After college, I started from scratch with the director Thomas Kail and the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, and we shifted the show’s focus from the love story to Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan where everyone is from everywhere. In the 20th century, Washington Heights was often home to the latest wave of immigrants. It was an Irish neighborhood; it was a Russian Jewish neighborhood (Yeshiva University is up there). If you take the Dominican store sign down you’ll see a sign for an Irish pub underneath it, and if you take that down you’ll find Hebrew. Washington Heights was heavily Dominican when I was growing up, and it remains so, with a vibrant Mexican and Latin American immigrant community as well.

We received great reviews. If critics had a common criticism, it was that the show, its contemporary music aside, was somehow old-fashioned or “sentimental.” Gentrification, the businesses closing, the literal powerlessness as the characters face a blackout that affects only their neighborhood—these issues, always there in the material, didn’t register with most theater critics in 2008. In the Heights was considered a hit by Broadway standards. It didn’t leap off the Arts page and into the national conversation like Hamilton would, but we won some Tonys, recouped our investment, and had a wonderful three-year run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton now lives. We posted our Broadway closing notice at the end of 2010.

What a difference 10 years makes.

Trump+Immigration+Policy

Right now, Jon M. Chu is editing his feature-film adaptation of In the Heights, which is scheduled to be released in June. We spent a joyous summer shooting the film—on location, in our neighborhood—and issues that were always inherent in the text now stand out in bold-faced type. Gentrification has rendered Lower Manhattan, Harlem, and much of Brooklyn unrecognizable to the previous generations that called those neighborhoods home. The East Village of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is nonexistent, lettered avenues notwithstanding. And the narrative of immigrants coming to this country and making a better life for themselves—the backdrop of everything that happens in In the Heights, across three generations of stories—is somehow a radical narrative now.

Donald Trump came down the escalator to declare his presidential run, and in his first speech he demonized Mexicans: They’re rapists; they’re bringing drugs; they’re not sending their best people. We young Latinos had thought of our parents and grandparents as the latest wave making its home in this country, and we thought that we would be the next group to make this place a better place, to prove once again that the American dream wasn’t just a figment of some propagandist’s imagination. And now we’re in a different age when, for some, considering an immigrant a human being is a radical political act.

Consider this rap, written 12 years ago and delivered by Sonny, In the Heights’ youngest character, in a song called “96,000”:

Your kids are living without a good edumacation,
Change the station, teach ’em about gentrification,
The rent is escalatin’
The rich are penetratin’
We pay our corporations when we should be demonstratin’
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant

It was always political. It was always there. Donald Trump made it even more true.

Trump uses language to destroy empathy. He criminalizes the impulse and imperative to seek asylum, to seek a place to live thousands of miles away because the alternative at home is worse. Through his lens, these seekers are not people; they’re “animals” or “bad hombres.”

What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before. I think about the crisis on the border constantly. I think about the famous photograph of a little girl crying beside a Border Patrol truck. That picture went viral because it seemed to capture the horror of family separations. But it turned out that the girl wasn’t being separated from her mother—her mother had simply been ordered to put her daughter down while she was searched by agents. The family was in distress, and the border crisis was real, but people used the details of this particular incident to close themselves off from empathy. “Fake news,” they said. A child is crying for her mother, but that’s not enough to keep people from pushing empathy away. I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of double-think, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.


This article appears in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award–winning composer, lyricist, and actor.

Are you surprised that the young leaders of the Never Again movement are theatre kids? I’m not.

Parklandby Stephen Sachs

They are young. They are bold and self-confident. They are articulate. They are passionate. They are leading a national movement.  And they are theatre kids.

A fiercely dedicated band of teen survivors of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this week are earning international attention through social media for speaking out on gun control in a movement they call Never Again. This grass-roots uprising launched by young people is highly organized and gathering national momentum.  The fiery speech by student Emma Gonzalez at a Florida rally is a viral sensation. Students grilled NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Senator Marco Rubio at a CNN town hall.   It drew three million viewers. The nationwide protest the group is leading on March 24 in Washington, D.C., is now expected to draw more than five hundred thousand participants to the nation’s capital. Sister marches are being planned in cities around the country.  The Never Again Twitter page already has eighty-one thousand followers.

All of this from a small troupe of teenage drama kids at a Florida high school who’s only worry last week rose from the stress of trying to memorize their lines.  This week, they all have much larger roles to play.

Several of the Never Again leaders are members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club. “All these kids are drama kids, and I’m a dramatic kid, so it really meshes well,” says leader Emma González.

Being “dramatic” doesn’t make any of these young people insincere. They are furiously committed. Even so, a dark fringe of “Fake News” conspiracy wackos on the internet are already accusing some of the kids of not being real students at all, but professional “crisis actors” paid to cause trouble. Asked about this charge, student Cameron Kasky told CNN that anyone who had seen him in the school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” knows that “nobody would pay me to act for anything.”

Are you surprised that these teenage drama nerds are now taking the international stage by storm? I’m not.

A theatre class is more than an artistic distraction for students. It can serve as a lightning rod of empowerment for young people. For many teens, the experience of standing in a spotlight on a stage in a play or musical,  galvanizing the attention of adults in the  audience, is the first time a young person discovers that what they say matters.  They learn that words have power, that their voice can move and inspire others.

Rehearsing a play teaches young people team work, collaboration, tolerance, the importance of listening to and following direction. They learn about problem solving, discipline, goal-setting and time management. And they discover that getting something significant accomplished can also be fun.

Drama club

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club.

The engine for all dramatic plays is conflict. Rehearsing a play thrusts students into roles attacking and defending both sides of an issue.  Therefore, the play teaches that no matter how dire the circumstances may seem, it remains valuable to understand and overcome opposing points of view to reach a satisfying ending.

Something magical happens to students when rehearsing a play or musical. They become a company. Adolescence can be painfully isolating. But in those brief hours of after-school drama practice, young people are forced to put down their cell phones and look each other in the eye.  They find human connection.  Friendships are formed, crushes blossom,  and leaders step forward. Perhaps most important,  kids learn that a group, working together, can deliver something meaningful and life-changing that is greater than themselves, for the benefit of the community.

When the CNN Town Hall on gun control came to a close, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club sang to the crowd. The song was written by survivors Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña to honor the 17 victims of the mass shooting. Their main message? “You’re not going to knock us down” and the standout line, “You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine the light.” At this moment,  those in the audiences turned the lights on their phones and stretched them above the crowd to shine their own light.

As one student asserted during a spoken word section of the performance, the students vow to “Be the voice for those who don’t have one.” A voice is a powerful thing, and theatre can be a formidable stage from which to find one’s own song.

As the Never Again mission statement declares, “Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard. ”

If art is a reflection of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, then whatever the students are learning in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club is a lesson for us all.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre

Playwright Lauren Gunderson offers theatre as an antidote to social media

I AND YOU star faces

Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You”, Fountain Theatre, 2015.

By Lauren Gunderson

Think of this pitch to a room of venture capitalists: “What we’re proposing is a scalable, repeatable product that makes vital intellectual and emotional wisdom portable, communicable, and adaptable and memorable. Everyone will use it and keep using it for millennia. We call it: storytelling.”

But unlike most social media technologies, live storytelling actually is social. And perhaps that’s why it’s still around, never having been truly eclipsed by radio, TV or the Internet. In defiance of each generation’s claim that theater is dying, both “Hamlet” and “Hamilton” would beg to differ. Yes, online social media offers us on-demand communication, information and all manner of opinion articulated and shared to the world. But is there congregation?

I use that word deliberately because, though I grew up going to church in Georgia, I find most of my philosophical and humanitarian meaning coming from theater. Theater is my church. And what it offers in the way of congregation, catharsis and wisdom is not just entertainment or art, but might also be an antidote to stress related to social media.

That stress can be the fatigue that comes with nonstop screens that can disrupt sleep patterns, change our breathing (“email apnea” as coined by Linda Stone), hamstring live interpersonal communication with all ages, and lead some to become addicted to the dopamine of pings and alerts. The stress for some might feel like the constant search for information or connection, but isn’t it really the search for meaning that comes up short?

Theater offers resolution. While social media is often a nearly endless scroll of information and opinion, it often doesn’t lead to any ending, any answer to the question “so what?” But theater answers that question by taking the audience all the way through a hero’s odyssey of struggle and revelation. Being witness to a complete story, instead of the bits and bytes we find online, offers a more satisfying and thoughtful resolution. Meaning is made not from pieces of information but from journeys and fellow journeyers.

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Lauren Gunderson

Theater is right here, right now. Theater is not on demand. Rather it asks you to show up on time and focus in order to experience the intimate intensity of its medium. Screens cannot replicate the feeling of being in a shared space and time with other humans. Theater is one of the most intense artistic experiences because the fiction is happening to real people who are right in front of you. You can hear it, smell it, see their passion and pain only feet away from your seat. This viscerality is unlike what you can experience through a posted video on your smartphone or even a TV show at home. The emotionally and physically distinct power of being present for art is hard to document or measure, but it’s apparent to everyone who has witnessed live performance’s arias, embraces and thunderous ovations.

The Bay Area is not only a hub of innovation but for art, too. Silicon Valley lives right next to the “city by the play,” with an abundance of theaters that rivals even Chicago. Bay Area theater companies have transferred shows to Broadway, incubated prize-winning plays and playwrights, and drawn world-famous actors to our stages. The wisest of us (and thankfully not just the wealthiest with a new push for affordable tickets for all) should take advantage of the digital relief, inspiration and empathetic reboot theater has to offer.

For a hotbed of tech that we are, it might be a good time to go old school and let live performance open your mind in a way social media can’t. Who knows what pattern-breaking ideas might occur to you once you leave your bubble (and your phone), focus on someone else’s story with a group of strangers, and see what wisdom alights on you at the theater.

Lauren Gunderson is the author of I and You (Fountain Theatre, 2015). She is a nationlly acclaimed award-winning playwright and the resident playwright of Marin Theatre Company. This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. . 

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