Thursday, March 16, 2017

JAN KULTURA and Why We Need Plays About Capitalism


Over on 2am Theatre, the long-running group blog featuring essays by various theater artists and pundits, Pete Miller, explains just "Why We Need Plays About Capitalism".

After a summary of how economists define capitalism, its functions, goals, and the ways it often fails short of its goals, and noting a general dearth of plays addressing these topics, he turned to a survey of 41 plays on the National New Play Network's New Play Exchange -- an essential service both for playwrights and theater companies seeking new work -- Miller broke the plays down into five categories:

Plays with the Economics or Capitalism tag are mostly about:
1. People suffering in a climate of reduced employment opportunity.
2. The broad impact specifically of unscrupulous and unconstrained capitalism on the less wealthy.
3. The villainy of specific bad economic actors and its consequences.
4. Classism and isolation between the wealthy and the poor in general.
5. Send ups of the absurdity of profit seeking as a primary motivation.

All of these are important topics, and I was favorably impressed with the vast majority of the scripts. However, only category number 5 really spoke to any of my example capitalism failures, and almost none of the plays revealed a sophisticated model of capitalism as part of their structure.

However, there were two plays that he felt did model capitalism, one of which is my Jan Kultura, Substitute Teacher, Meets the Crowd:

There were two plays that specifically spoke to economic theory, in the same way that [Michael Frayn's] Copenhagen speaks to physics or [Tom Stoppard's] The Hard Problem speaks to brain science. (I’ve seen productions of both of those plays recently, so may be a little over-prepared to see more work with a hefty academic basis.) Clearing Bombs by Eric Samuelsen imagines a conversation between two major 20th century economists stuck on a rooftop during WWII and passing the time with a deep but lively economic debate. Jan Kultura, Substitute Teacher, Meets the Crowd by Ian Thal is a short play that essentially presents a case study of crowd sourced creativity as a vehicle to steal ideas from people without having to pay them – well larded with good economic thinking. These stood out to me as good examples of scripts we could stand to have more of.

Miller's essay is an interesting read even if it did not offer play recommendations, and I might not have known about it had not been for the fact that his wife and I went to the same high school and she recognized my name after she read his essay.

[As a side note, I'm on record as not being a fan of Frayn's Copenhagen -- however dazzling the discussion of quantum mechanics and nuclear fission might be -- Frayn commits several instances of historical revisionism and falsification that I find tantamount to Nazi apologetics.]

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