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Howard Sherman: Are US theatres overstepping the marquee by putting politics up in lights?

The signage at the Garde Arts Center. Photo: A Vincent Scarano The signage at the Garde Arts Center. Photo: A Vincent Scarano
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If you’re headed to the small downtown of New London, Connecticut, one of the few routes available to you is Bank Street, which slopes down for a few blocks to the nicely restored vintage train station. A young Eugene O’Neill walked these streets more than a century ago when his family spent their summers in this small city.

At the very top of Bank Street sits the Garde Arts Center, a good-sized presenting venue that draws an array of talent and local events. It has been challenged in recent years by the seemingly bottomless pockets of the Native American casinos that sprang up nearby, offering an ever-expanding roster of acts designed to lure people to the dice tables and slot machines.

Had you been nonchalantly turning your car onto Bank Street in late December, you might well have slammed on your brakes or driven on to the sidewalk, startled by words on the Garde’s marquee. “Final Appearance,” it read, “Transgender. Foetus. Vulnerable. Diversity, Science-based. Evidence-based. Entitlement.”

These are the words that the Trump administration had reportedly advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid in its budgeting proposals. The censorship of language that might be useful to a, well, science-based organisation was quickly decried by many, even as others pushed back on the idea that any such restriction was in fact in place. But how had this contretemps over terminology landed itself on a theatre marquee?

Steve Sigel, the longtime head of the Garde, told his local newspaper the Day that he was just trying to provoke conversation, saying: “There’s nothing incendiary or political about it.” Speaking to Sigel at the time, and knowing him to have a sly sense of humour, I accused him of being disingenuous, but that was his story and he stuck to it, even after I pointed out that it was possible to be political without being explicitly partisan.

Several thousand miles south of New London, in Miami Florida, the brand-new company Miami New Drama unveiled a politicised message of its own last week on its marquee at the Colony Theatre.

It noted a different kind of language debate, provoked by President Trump’s reported statements about the countries of Haiti, El Salvador and the entirety of the African Nations. The marquee read: “Colony Theatre Proudly Represents Artists from Sh!thole Nations.” It is unlikely that the carefully placed exclamation mark fooled anyone.

The Colony Theatre. Photo: Miami New Drama
The Colony Theatre. Photo: Miami New Drama

This wasn’t the first time that Miami New Drama had used its marquee for social commentary. Previous messages spoke against the alt-right perpetrators of violence in Charlottesville, tweaked the president’s Twitter-based “covfefe” gaffe, and offered the URL of a charity focused on bringing relief to the flooded communities in and around Houston, Texas.

In Boston, the Paramount Theatre, owned by Emerson College, displayed “Dreamers Welcome” on its video marquee. This was a reference to the undocumented young people brought here as children – by undocumented parents who have spent their lives in the US and now face deportation back to “home countries” they barely remember.

Another message there, according to a report in the Boston Globe, read, “We choose: inclusivity, generosity, art, curiosity, compassion.” So there may be a groundswell brewing using marquees to address politics or express values.

It’s been 15 months since I wrote about how theatres could use their venues outside of performance hours for a range of activities, but I never imagined uses of marquees such as those in New London, Boston, and Miami.

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As I noted at the time, there are often strictures on political activities for arts organisations that receive public funding, and given how public marquees are, this seemed a great risk.

Obviously, Michel Hausmann at Miami New Drama, David Dower at Emerson, and Sigel were willing to take a chance, and in doing so, may have suggested a new means of using theatres as public forums, without requiring anyone to buy a ticket, see a show or even walk inside.

The Miami Herald capped a story about Hausmann’s display-based activism with a quote from him: “What can I say? Artists are dangerous people.”

While the Herald article didn’t afford the opportunity for commenters underneath and the Globe story produced only four, the Day’s comments section was flooded. It revealed an array of viewpoints from across the spectrum, from those who applauded the Garde’s boldness via theatre signage, to those who condemned the act of supposedly intolerant leftists.

It remains to be seen whether there’s any long-term fallout for either venue, though Sigel noted that press coverage had yielded new gifts to the Garde from across the country.

At a time when we in the US are told by many commentators how starkly different our politics and our political discourse are from any time in the past, it seems only right that creative voices may use unique and innovative ways to express what they’re feeling and their hopes for the future.

Designed to attract the attention of passers-by, marquees may well be an underused asset for acts of political theatre. It is yet another place that theatres can write out the scripts of coming attractions to warn us and inspire us about dramas that we face right now and those yet to come.

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