Like many ideas born of the moment, the nationwide "Ghostlight" protest seems to mean many things to many different people. It began with New York-based set designer David Zinn emailing nine friends after Thanksgiving last year with the idea that the theater community should stand together in "some way that showed solidarity," a union at the dawn of what is surely a new political age.
At first no one responded. And then it seemed as if thousands did. What started out as a wistful call to action turned into an avalanche of participation: "Ghostlight" became a nationwide event with more than 775 theaters participating, from Broadway behemoths and large regional theaters to high school theater programs and scrappy basement outfits.
At 5:30 pm on the eve of President Trump's inauguration, theater artists across the country gathered at host theaters and raised a symbolic light (the "ghost light" is the last light left on in a theater) for inclusion, care, and open dialogue -- values participants in the protest felt the incoming Trump administration has shown little respect for.
In San Francisco, about 300 actors, directors, designers, playwrights, and arts patrons assembled in the Geary Theater lobby, the main home of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (ACT). The mood was celebratory and free of rancor. But still, the buzz beneath the buzz had a last-party-before-the-storm vibe. You could feel the tension and uncertainty of battles yet to be waged. In a community filled with gifted, mostly left-leaning imaginations, the jarring reality of the right’s political ascent had slapped a loose collective into hazy action.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts program director Mark Bamuthi Joseph, Crowded Fire’s artistic director Mina Morita, and ACT's longtime leader Carey Perloff perched on the stairs in front of three microphones. Despite the cheering, there was a touch of realism at the very notion of participating in "Ghostlight" and what it might mean for the future. Or as Perloff eloquently put it, "We aren't naive: this is just a gesture." But a gesture to what, I wondered?
There was nothing in the "Ghostlight" protest I went to that suggested any real political directives, calls to action, or change. The "Ghostlight" website encourages and suggests ways of making alliances, and yet there's little about how the theater should change or how the hard-edged politics of the right have so effectively dismantled the values that we are supposedly standing for. It's as if everything is wonderful because it comes from the theater.
I personally find that to be a weakness of vision and spirit, a dilution of both the art of theater and the politics of protest. But many of the organizers and participants in "Ghostlight" believe that the haziness at the core of the protest is a source of strength, a necessary path or stage in building lasting social and political coalitions.
In a phone interview from New York a few days before the protest, Zinn responded to these criticisms head on and laid out a counter vision. He said that one of the necessary goals of "Ghostlight" is “encouraging people to reach out to their communities in different ways and that can mean different things to different people.” Zinn also felt it was crucial “not to dictate what the protest means." Because in the end, he said, "that will allow for responses that are more authentic and easier to implement.”
That's a beautiful vision of spontaneous political awakening. And in a fundamental way, the enthusiasm for "Ghostlight" is its own defense, though it leaves many troubling questions unasked. The chief among them is content: what types of productions should this community produce going forwards? And in what ways? And why should anyone care?
The answers I received from a variety of Bay Area theater artists all tilted in the same fascinating direction: In interview after interview, I heard strong echoes of a strain of traditional, conservative thought -- a set of ideas that center on the value of community and the promise of spiritual salvation. These ideas, though traditionally conservative, are experiencing a revival in Bay Area theaters that are in deep opposition to the messaging commonly associated with the Trump-affiliated "alt-right" movement (an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, and populism).
Shotgun Players' founder and artistic director Patrick Dooley consciously sees his theater as taking on some of the civic value that religious organizations used to provide: “We can’t supplant churches and synagogues," Dooley said. "But what we do is a lot of the same work, which is how you think about the way that you exist in the world, that you’re not alone, and that the decisions that you make and the choices that you make reflect on others.”
Like Shotgun Players, Ubuntu Theater Project produces its work in an old church. Co-founder and co-artistic director Michael Moran is quite evangelical about the role of spiritual values for his company. “How is it that we are secular and moral at the same time?" Moran asked. "Where did we get our morality if not from religion? And if we’re serious there is a way of organizing, using the plays as a centerpiece of encouragement, not didactically, but in terms of intellectual complexity and poetry. I mean, what would it look like if theaters did what the churches did in the civil rights movement?"
And Lisa Steindler, the artistic director of Z Space, has always thought of her theater as a "town hall or sanctuary; a place where people can gather, commune, and have different opinions." Steindler said that it's important for her space to be welcoming and feel safe for everyone. "Because if it's safe, you can have the harder conversations," that she feels are so central to the mission of her theater. It is this type of steady work with audiences that has been and still is the work of our best theaters in the Bay Area.
So it's a topsy turvy world, where Republicans are the agents of radical change and Bay Area theater artists, the stewards of traditional religious values. “Change happens largely invisibly in tiny increments," the Berkeley Repertory Theater's artistic director Tony Taccone pointed out in an interview the morning before the protest. "Everyone notices the moments of titanic change, the epiphany, but that happens about once every 10 years.”
I think Taccone is right. Invisibly and without our noticing it, American culture has shifted and reordered its values over the last 10 years. We're shocked that the Titanic is sinking, but the fissures have been cracking open for some time. And that leads me back to plays and productions, the core content that our theaters produce.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques all center their flocks around great works of literature and a complex set of rituals in how they respond to that literature. The sustained richness of that tradition is the source of great power, both cultural and political. Without a commitment to that type of greatness, I worry that these protests are in danger of merely being a celebration of our virtue.
But as Zinn said to me, "This is just the beginning."