Conservative Theater in Columbus sets the stage for debate
Remember when theater legend David Mamet “came out” in 2008?
Not as gay, but as conservative. Well, in a theatrical universe largely populated by the left—where an openly conservative voice is rare—it was huge news.
Somewhere, Robert Cooperman was applauding.
With the last year’s drama-filled Presidential campaign as his mise-en-scène, the Dublin native set off on an ambitious project: to put plays from the right on stage, and give audiences a new challenge.
Inspired by a similar festival in Philadelphia, Cooperman, an adjunct professor of English and Theater at Ohio University-Lancaster, put out a national call for scripts in July and received 38. Six short scripts were selected for the festival, held for an evening last January. Cooperman hopes to repeat the festival sometime next year under the moniker of Stage Right Theatrics.
(614) recently talked with Cooperman about theater and politics, and what future conservative theater might have in Columbus.
What is conservative theater? Does a play have to express a political viewpoint to be conservative?
[Conservative theater] expresses a view, for example, that there is a higher being than just us—that we are not our own gods. It expresses the value that there is one law of the land, and that is the Constitution and that’s what we need to be following. That there is such a thing as human nature—which is why communism and socialism don’t work, because it goes against human nature. We’re trying to be celebratory of success. We don’t like labels on people. We like to say that we’re all Americans. Conservative theater celebrates, in some way, those kinds of values. We’re currently in our infancy and we’re writing satire. I’d like to see plays get developed more, and actually grapple with those issues. For me, conservative theater will have to evolve. We can’t just always be satire and parody.
What’s the conservative’s response to watching a musical like Rent, or a play like Greater Tuna, which portrays rural, small-town residents as willfully ignorant? Can you overcome politics to see performances?
Conservatives go to the theater…and they see us being ridiculed in that way. There’s this superficial and stereotypical view of what we are. We go to the theater and we see this; we tend not to go to the theater, then. So we go to musicals where nobody’s offended, or Shakespeare. As a result, we’re not represented in the theater very often.
You’re Jewish. I recall you writing a short script about the frustrations of being a politically conservative Jew. Tell me about that.
I come from New York. We were all Jews where I come from, so we shared that. When you move to Central Ohio, you don’t see as many Jews. They are here, but you don’t see them. What tends to happen is that you leave your comfortable environment, and you become more of what you were. So I left New York, where I never attended temple—none of my friends went to temple, or very few. I come to Ohio and the first thing I did was join a temple because you want to seek camaraderie with people. But I have become disillusioned with it because the rabbis are…proselytizing for a particular political cause—and that’s not why I go to temple. And I actually discussed it with one of the rabbis there, and his response was, “Well that’s who I am and that’s what I’m going to do.” [My response was,] “Okay, then I’m leaving.” It’s different to be a conservative Jew, but at this point in my life, I’m not seeking others. I’m just seeking like-minded conservatives of any religious stripe.
Considering that Columbus, like most urban centers, leans to the left, who do you see as your audience?
Twofold. One, the easy answer: I’d like to see conservatives as the audience—people who feel that the theater is not for them. I want for people who don’t normally go to the theater to come out and see some theater. The other thing is I want people who don’t agree with us to come out and see what we’re all about. Just to see another point of view.
We’ve found a real political divide between rural/small town and urban America. Since urban America produces most of our playwrights, might government funding of the local arts in smaller town theaters help a conservative voice take hold? What do you think of potential cuts or elimination of federal funding for the arts?
I think that’s left to local governments, and I have no problem at all if a local government wanted to fund the arts, but the [National Endowment for the Arts], I don’t know. I love PBS as much as everybody else, but I don’t know if the [federal] government should be in the business of doing that. I don’t see anywhere in the Constitution that says the government shall fund the arts. Let the community, let the people, let the corporations, let the state or the city do that.
Your mantra is, “Disagreement doesn’t equal hate.” Do you think audiences are in a place where they can be open-minded about politically themed theater?
I do think people have that capacity. They have to go in with the mindset of, “I’m here to listen.” [People] come in with a predetermined idea of what they’re going to see. That was true for the festival. But they stayed. I will tell you that.
To submit a script or find out more, visit conservativefestivaloh.com.