Republicans Get Their Own Theater Festival

Philadelphian Cara Blouin is producing the world's first.

The call went out on Sunday via the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia’s community listserv:

Forearmed Productions seeks one act plays for the Republican Theater Festival, November 2012, which aims to create a forum for a perspective not usually heard in theater. Forearmed will select 3 new one-act or 10 minute plays by living playwrights that represent ideas related to social or fiscal conservatism, issues considered part of the Republican Party, Libertarian or Tea Party platforms, or concerns of people of faith. Plays which have the ultimate aim of criticizing or satirizing conservative ideas will not be considered…

And with that, 33-year old West Philadelphia theater artist and Forearmed Productions founder Cara Blouin created the Republican Theater Festival, the country’s first-ever theater fest dedicated to producing plays that might make Ronald Reagan proud.

“Is she serious?” asks (and not rhetorically) Nick Stuccio, producing director of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe, the city’s most esteemed theater festival and one with its share of liberal themes and overtones. The answer is that Blouin is as serious as Mitt Romney’s accountant, and the Republican Theater Festival is scheduled for November 12th through 14th at Philadelphia’s Plays & Players Theater.

“I had gone to the New City [Stage Company] production of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, which is ostensibly about terrorism,” says Blouin (above), a registered Independent and the daughter of a Catholic conservative and an atheistic liberal. “And I was overwhelmed by the assumption that everyone in the audience was sympathetic to liberal views. Theater as it stands right now is already kind of the Left Festival.”

Blouin’s announcement was met with swift and varied reactions in the Philadelphia theater community and beyond. Some were surprised that the woman responsible for 2011’s Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You would concoct an idea for a theater fest for the right, especially in such a lefty city like Philadelphia. Blouin wrote and directed that play in response to a controversial column about rape by Dan Rottenberg, the editor of Philadelphia arts critique website Broad Street Review, who set off a firestorm by suggesting that a well-pubicized sexual assault victim may have asked for it. (Rottenberg later apologized.)

“Actors and writers should be hired simply because they can do their jobs well, not for their politics,” wrote local actress Jessica Foley, being careful to note that “not all Republicans are bad folk.” Philadelphia actor Rob Cutler, who performed in Dan Rottenberg, says he’d consider auditioning for the festival but doubts he’d be cast because of his own, well-known liberal views. Nonsense, says Blouin, who insists that she wants liberal actors to audition. “I certainly hope that the festival isn’t perceived that way,” she says. “It should be an antidote for polarization.” Besides, one would have to wonder if there would be enough conservative actors in Philadelphia to fill the roles.

Blouin says she’s also getting flak from close friends and colleagues, “who think I shouldn’t hold the festival at all.” One such friend is actor and arts administrator Michael McElroy, who says that while he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with Blouin giving a platform to fiscally conservative viewpoints, he doesn’t think that some socially conservative beliefs should be given a stage in Philadelphia. “There’s hate speech in a lot of socially conservative ideas,” asserts McElroy, who self-identifies as “very liberal.” “Plus, a lot of actors are gay, so what if there’s a play that says it’s a sin to be gay? It’s offensive ideology. Conservative ideology is oppressive. Personally, I am not into giving it a voice.”

One Philadelphia-area playwright who is happy to welcome the festival is Eric Balchunas, who has already sent work to Blouin for consideration. Balchunas is a Philly Fringe regular thanks to his hugely popular theatrical series Wawapalooza, which celebrates the convenience store chain Wawa and is in its sixth year at the Fringe. “Nobody in theater takes shots at liberals,” says Balchunas, who works by day as a financial analyst and says he’s “more of a Ron Paul guy, not a Romney type of Republican.” “Theater makes fun of Republicans, government and Jesus. I think Jesus is great, and sometimes faith gets trashed in theater really quite a bit. You don’t need to have a Democrat festival. Almost every play you see has a liberal slant. You wouldn’t need to have this if it was a little more evenhanded when you go to a theater.”

For the Republican Theater Festival, Balchunas has submitted two shorts. In Home From College, a political science major in her senior year comes home and rips into her parents for eating meat and her dad for working at some nameless, faceless corporation, the same job that pays for her education and lifestyle. Then she joins Greenpeace. Then she asks her parents for money for a car. In Coming Out of the Closet, his second submission, Balchunas took the scenario of a gay man coming out to his friends in the 1950s and replaced the “gay” with “Republican” and moved the setting to modern-day Northern Liberties. When he makes his big reveal, his friends are horrified. “I want to lower the debt and balance the budget, I can’t help it,” says the newly outed conservative character. “And I’m pro-life, too.” His girlfriend promptly vomits.

Support for the festival has come from outside the region as well, especially from the anonymous actor behind the blog Confessions of a Closet Republican, where she writes about the difficulties of being a conservative in the arts. Rebecca, as she’s asked to be called, is based hundreds of miles outside of Philadelphia in a “red state” and has worked in theater for the better part of three decades. She’s so concerned about her identity that she’s asked that her specific state of residency not be revealed.

“I wonder how many people will be willing to out themselves as conservatives for this festival,” says Rebecca, who blogged earlier this week about former Saturday Night Live actor Jon Lovitz coming under attack in Hollywood for criticizing President Obama. “Liberal actors don’t have to be afraid of their politics, but in this industry, you may not get work if you’re outed as a Republican. I know people who are fine artists that have the same problem. If their politics become known, they are less likely to get gallery work.”

Ardmore’s Quinn Eli laughs at that notion. “No one suffers from a feeling of victimhood more than conservatives,” says the playwright. “No one seems to have more invested in the idea of identity politics while at the same time denouncing identity politics, and as an African-American who usually moves in predominantly white circles, I find that comical. But I believe in representation and inclusion, including conservatives.” Eli says he intends to submit a play to the festival, even though he doesn’t identify as conservative. “If I can’t do that, I am a hypocrite,” he declares. “I wouldn’t submit to a festival asking for plays by women or plays with a queer sensibility, but  not contributing to something because its politics are not necessarily my own, well, that would feel a little precious to me, like I need to protect myself from evil conservatives.”

Meanwhile, the biggest booster of the Republican Theater Festival may be Live Arts/Fringe’s Stuccio. “I think it’s fabulous,” insists the self-described “devout progressive.” “It adds to the rich complexity of the arts. Otherwise, it gets boring. If we’re all a bunch of mono-cultural thinkers with all the same viewpoint, that’s so bland. It’s as wrong-minded as conservatives who don’t think that Mapplethorpe has any place in the pantheon of American culture.”