Conservative Theater Festival Offers Unconventional Dramas

By Maggie Gallagher Published on January 4, 2018

Stream columnist Maggie Gallagher interviews producer Robert Cooperman about his upcoming event. It brings conservative, religious, and patriotic themes to the stage. To help it along, visit its crowdfunding page here.

Stream: Tell me about your theater festival. It’s January 26-28 in Columbus, Ohio, right?

Yes, it runs at the Shedd Theatre in Columbus. The Conservative Theatre Festival is now going to be an annual event. The 2018 season is our second.  Why am I doing this? I was tired of the obligatory attack on conservatives in plays. Of the stereotypical portrayal of conservatives as ignorant, bigoted hillbillies or homophobic religious zealots.  I decided to test the waters to see if there were any other conservative playwrights.

Yes there are! I seek plays that come from a conservative, traditional worldview. One sympathetic to the idea that America is an exceptional country. That those on the right are not defined by hatred (“hate” being a word like “nice” that is slowly becoming meaningless from its overuse). That wants to see our Constitution upheld, our federal behemoth shrunk, and our laws obeyed. 

CoopermanWhen I talk about “worldview,” I am talking about the set of beliefs that define us.  In the arts — and this has been the case for a long, long time — the progressive worldview is understood to be the “norm.”  As a result, those who have a different worldview are ostracized and silenced.

However, those on the Right have as much right to point out, criticize, and even mock the things in our culture that we see as damaging. The Left does not (or should not) have a monopoly on dissent.  In the theater, the idea that society is flawed is fundamental. (Go channel Ibsen, for starters, or Aristophanes). Why is it that those on the Left are the only ones who can point out society’s flaws onstage?  The Conservative Theatre Festival aims to showcase other, dissenting voices.

What Makes a Play “Conservative”?

Who is Robert Cooperman that he dares to declare a play conservative, much less a whole festival?

Robert Cooperman is a political anomaly.  I am a New York-born Jew who is a conservative.  By all rights, I should implode.  I don’t think one has to be an “expert” or have sufficient credentials to define a conservative play.  One just has to be sensitive to the daily, persistent attack on traditional values that many, many people in this country hold dear.  Talk about implicit bias!  We (especially white males) are told that we are intractably racist; we can’t help it — it’s in our genes. 

Yet the Left is “genetically” hostile to conservatives, subconsciously as well as overtly, and that is considered an acceptable position.  So, I am sensitive to the pervasiveness of hostility toward conservatives that is inherent in the theatre arts. I wish to highlight those plays that recognize it, too, and present a challenge to it.  If I didn’t do it, someone else probably would.  Also, I am a Professor of English and Theatre (Ph.D. in English with Modern Drama as my specialty). And a playwright who has been produced in New York City. A husband, a father, and a dreamer.

Are the Arts Now Hopelessly Politicized?

What would you say to someone, maybe like me, who says: the answer to the Left’s politicization of everything is not to politicize back? Aren’t people hungry for some domains outside of politics?

I’m troubled when we don’t take on the Left directly.  Progressives (at least our contemporary progressives) are not apt to sit down, listen to our beliefs, nod their heads in “understanding,” and break bread with us.  As one can see on an almost daily basis, the left is out to silence us.  So, my first inclination is to not remain silent.  Why allow the Left to determine the parameters of our existence? 

As it is, the Left has defined conservatives to such a degree that we seem unwilling or incapable of challenging that definition (homophobic, misogynist, racist, Bible-thumping bigots).  So, the first iteration of the Conservative Theatre Festival featured plays/characters that mocked progressive stances — literally mocked.  We had college professors who were blind to the concerns of real people and instead spewed insults at right-wing thought. Play showed officials in business and education who imposed speech and thought control policies. We had parents so confused by gender identity that they refused to make dinner for their hungry child because they feared being stereotyped. 

Naturally, we were (and continue to be) lambasted for being “mean” and “insensitive.”  I am not, however, unappreciative of the argument that conservatives cannot simply define themselves as the “anti-Left.”  I actually agree wholeheartedly.  We must present a more “positive” and evolutionary view of conservatism. I have chosen plays for the upcoming Festival that are in that vein.  Still, we needed to put the Left on notice and satire is a good way to do that. 

In our infancy, we start out as the “squeaky wheel”; as we evolve, we become more thoughtful and prescriptive.  But for God’s sake, conservatives have been mocked and demonized for decades: why shouldn’t we answer back and force the Left to defend its positions and hatred?  And I agree that most people—including me, quite frankly—are hungry for less politicization.  But we must not allow the Left to determine solely what that looks like.

A Powerful Pro-Life Play

What is the play you think Stream readers would be most excited to see at this years’ festival?

That’s a hard one because I think all the plays would be exciting to Stream readers.  But I’m not about to give a cop-out answer like that!  I think The Comfort Room by Cece Dwyer, might be most emotionally powerful to Stream readers.  This poignant piece looks in horror at the practice of “live-birth abortions” where babies are prematurely removed from the womb and left to die in so-called “comfort rooms.”  The play speculates on what a slippery slope this kind of barbarism could lead to, depicting an elderly patient being left to die as her usefulness “expires.”  I found the play touching and all-too real.Theater1

What’s the Phyllis Schlafly play about?

About 15 minutes.  HA!!  I couldn’t resist!  God Bless Phyllis Schlafly is by Amy Drake. She said that the play “examines the enormous contributions made to society by the traditional women disenfranchised by the women’s movement in America.”  Although labeled a comedy, the play features two women who have a lively debate about the effectiveness of feminism and its progression away from an “equal rights” agenda to one of man-hating, abortion, and career-mindedness, often poking fun at those who do not subscribe to that point of view.

Classics We Can All Enjoy

Name your favorite play of all time?

Another tough one, but my vote right now is for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  I love its simplicity, its wisdom, its meta-theatrical qualities, and its poetry.  I am always moved by Emily’s exchange with the Stage Manager in Act Three when she asks him, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every, every minute?” To that the Stage Manager replies, “No. Saints and poets maybe. . . they do some.”  To me, that sums up what blind fools we can be when we have no “way,” no guidance, which makes our contemporary secularization all the more disturbing.  I also love the way Wilder presents the milestones of life (birth, marriage, death) as in-sync with the rhythms of everyday life and universally acceptable.  Our Town has been produced all over the world including, I must add, at one of the Japanese internment camps during World War II. 

A close second for favorite play would be Almost, Maine by John Cariani.  I’ve seen this play produced numerous times, both in high schools and colleges, and I never fail to be moved.  I love how it takes the everyday, the insignificant, the cliché and makes it substantial.  There’s almost a goofiness about the situations presented in the play — a literal broken heart, a shoe actually dropping, love given as a tangible item — and makes them believable, as if you could find these things every day.  Like Our Town, Almost, Maine takes the minute and makes it monumental.

Faith and Drama

Are you a religious man? What does conservatism mean to you?

I am a believer and a practicing Jew.  But I am not, at this point in my life, a man who refrains from work on the Sabbath, which I think is a most sensible idea. But I am slowly coming around to that.  And I don’t always find solace in belonging to a temple, as I too often see social and political agendas played out amongst the congregation, in which I have no interest in participating. 

I have great respect for religious conviction. I am a firm believer that it is unequivocally better to believe in something rather than nothing and to humble ourselves before forces more powerful than we are.  Once we start believing that we are gods, we create much of the world we now live in.  Conservatism for me is the refusal to let go of essential truths (yes, I believe there are some!) and the institutions that have served humanity well for a long time. 

These truths are to be found both in our scripture and our Constitution.  I believe that although both were written long ago, they are meant for all time, which is why I am quite resistant to “modernizing” the Constitution and why the Founding Fathers explicitly made Constitution- changing a very difficult process.  I am also passionate about the idea that conservatism is not seen as a substitute for the word “hate,” which is why I have trademarked my company’s motto: “Disagreement Does Not Equal Hate.”®  We are simply people who wish to hold onto values that have served us well and are our greatest forces for preserving freedom and human dignity.

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