The Theatrics of Donald Trump

This article was originally published on Arc on November 30, 2016. 

Is the theatre supposed to be safe for anyone?

The great political dramedy of our time continues!

Hot on the heels of Donald Trump’s shocking election as the 45th President of these United States opens a new act in this year’s hit play, Divided Nation: An Experiment in Getting What We Deserve. This third and decidedly meta act stars Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the cast of Hamilton, and President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter “@realDonaldTrump” (the titillating star of Acts 1 and 2 and all-around titan of a character in our digital age). Funny business aside, here’s the quick rundown of events:

  • Vice-President-elect Mike Pence attends Hamilton with his daughter in New York City where the audience boos upon his entering the theater.
  • The cast of Hamilton reads a message to Mr. Pence at the end of the show.
  • @realDonaldTrump goes on one of his patented Twitter rants:

To address the fullest possible picture, a threefold critique is needed:

  1. Assessing the veracity of @realDonaldTrump’s statement: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”
  2. Assessing the propriety of actors addressing an audience member directly. This requires asking: What is the relationship of actor and audience?
  3. Assessing the veracity of @realDonaldTrump’s statement: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated…”

#2 is an important question for another article.

#3: Please stop; you sound ridiculous.

#1: is where I’d like dig in.

Let’s start by saying that @realDonaldTrump was probably not trying to make an absolute statement about what theatre is. It’s certainly possible that he was, but let’s be charitable and say that he was being both hyperbolic (because, to be honest, he’s kind of emotional) and very specific to the Pence/Hamilton drama.

He could have meant that the theater must be a “safe place” in that an individual shouldn’t be personally and negatively addressed before, during, or after a performance. I think that’s a defensible (though complex) position, but we’re sliding into #2. Again, that’s another article.

With these qualifications behind us, it seems that @realDonaldTrump has opened up the door to discuss theatre’s purpose as an art form. So for that, thanks for starting the conversation DJT!

These are some of the most distinctive and important qualities of theatre:

(1) It is experienced live.

This is probably the most important and essential part of what separates theatre from other art forms. The experience of the art takes place in real time.

(2) It is experienced in community.

Theatre is people watching people surrounded by other people. It’s kind of awkward really.

(3) It brings together artists and craftspeople from a wide range of skills.

Including: writers, directors, actors, scenic designers, costume designers, lighting designers, sound designers, electricians, carpenters, painters, etc. Theatre, as an art form, is highly collaborative. In fact, it lives or dies by the quality (or lack thereof) of its collaboration.

(4) At its best it is morally, existentially, and culturally conscious.

Theatre is concerned with the moral and social issues of its time and can be fairly direct in addressing them. This often leads to the final quality.

(5) It is offensive.

Visually, aurally, intellectually, and aesthetically offensive. There are often bright lights, sudden noises, haze machines, dim lamps, people yelling, loud music, people crying on stage, people crying in the seat next to you, people saying things you don’t like, people saying things you like too much, people believing things you believe, people poking holes in what you believe, people making you question your presuppositions, people making you ashamed of your judgments when you walked in, and the list could go on and on.

For the thinking and feeling person it is not a safe place, nor should it be. Whether you are conservative or progressive, when it becomes too much like an echo chamber, when you are only hearing what you like to hear, find a different theatre, or at least another theatre.

The theatre, at its best, should regularly challenge our answers to the big questions about our existence; it should consistently make us second guess what we assume about the man in the row ahead of us or the woman on the corner as we were walking in; and it should brutally represent reality as we see it or perhaps as we have refused to see it.

Our compassion for others and our self-awareness should evolve as a consequence of watching a play or musical. Theatre cultivates our ability to listen to the person in front of us and requires us to not speak. This basic human skill may be more important now than ever. When theatre shies away from any of its distinctive qualities it loses its potency and sacrifices its position as one of the great social and moral art forms.

Must the theatre always be a special place? If done well, it will be. Must the theatre always be a safe place? Yes, but only in a physical sense, of course. In many other ways, absolutely not.

On Philip Seymour Hoffman

This article was originally published on Culturemakerblog.com in February 2014. 

I could not decide whether to make this a deeply personal trope about the impact this actor has had on me, or an exalting exposition of why this man is one of the greatest actors of all time. I’m doing both.


It was Thursday, April 5. Around ten months earlier, I discovered that the play was happening and four months before that, we bought our tickets. My favorite play, by my favorite playwright, starring my favorite actor—how had such a thing happened already in my short life? In brief, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman was a transcendent artistic experience. Ask Samantha, or Tim, or Ryan and they will tell you something similar. Even if in a small way, we were all changed that day. When the play was over it was hard to move. I had been crying and wanted to sink into my seat and attempt to process what we had just seen; maybe try and verbalize a few of the thoughts and feelings the play had evoked…but I wanted to meet Philip Seymour Hoffman. So we waited outside the theater. Andrew Garfield came out of the stage door (he played Biff, wonderfully I might add), and was real sweet and was shocked at how expensive our tickets were. He signed our playbills along with Finn Wittrock who played Happy and Linda Edmond who played Linda Loman. Then we waited for Mr. Hoffman (whom I will call Phil from now on in my attempt to manufacture closeness to him). And we kept waiting. Other audience members and fans left and soon we were the only ones outside the stage door. We waited for another fifteen minutes, then walked around the back of the theater to see if he had snuck out that way, hoping we could track him down. We were basically, in a very formal way I like to think, stalking him, or at least trying to. Tim and I even considered yelling his name in the streets, forcing him to make an appearance. But we never found him. We never met him. It really hurt me at the time because I wanted to congratulate him and thank him and get his autograph. I wanted to tell him that he had inspired me like no other actor. That he had given hope to chubby, pale, and blonde acting hopefuls (me) everywhere. That he had played the roles that I wanted to play one day (Lee in True West, Jamie in Long Day's Journey into Night, Iago in Othello, Father Flynn in Doubt , Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman etc.). That what he just did on stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, made me want to act for the rest of my life.

I didn’t get to tell Mr. Hoffman any of that on April 5, 2012, but I had aspirations to do so one day. Selfishly, I am heartbroken that that day will never come, in this life at least. I am more heartbroken, however, that three young children lost their father, and that the acting profession lost one of its singular talents.


Much has been written about Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last week since his sudden passing. He is often said to be one of the finest actors of his generation, but I think this distinction could easily be expanded to one of the greatest actors of the Stanislavski and post-Stanislavski era. Phil was not a celebrity, or a movie star in the banal sense of the words, but an artist and actor of the highest order. A true craftsman, he was a powerhouse of physical presence, vocal transformation, and emotional honesty. He didn’t have a “type.” He never played the same role twice. He gave us an astoundingly broad range of characters, I would say only on par with Meryl Streep in terms of their diversity. The special quality that Phil brought to each of his characters, I think, was an instant recognition of their “type” mixed with a painstakingly deep personalization. In other words, we immediately recognized that he was the villain, or the homosexual, or the transsexual, or the loner, or the nurse, or the funny sidekick, or Truman Capote, or the jerk prep boy, or the uptight assistant, or the straitlaced student, or the grief stricken widower, or the hard-ass agent, or the cult leader; but were then astonished by the specialized and utterly distinct human being that he created. Phil did not settle to play the “type.” He was committed to the truth and in this pursuit he recognized that no person squarely fits a “type.” He portrayed otherness with a searing vulnerability and depth that forced us to empathize with the people he typified. Phil often played supporting roles and was a master of existing honestly within a film, not giving an inflated performance, not distracting from the film’s central goals, but managing to consistently steal many of the scenes he was in.

Beyond this glowing film career, however, it must not be forgotten that Phil was a man of the theatre. Trained at NYU in their undergraduate Meisner acting program, he lived in New York throughout his life and regularly worked on and off Broadway as an actor and director. He was constantly committed to honing his craft, and like many of the greats, used the stage as fuel for all his other work.


All that being said, here is my succinct treatise on why Philip Seymour Hoffman is/was one of the greatest actors of all time, and why his films are well worth our investment:

(Note: Don’t feel the need to watch or read every one of these. I am absolutely being excessive and this will probably end up being more for me than anyone else.)

 

As George Willis Jr. in Scent of a Woman he is the self-concerned and slimy prep student, but he brings an earnestness and sincerity that makes us actually want to listen to him.

 

As Dusty Davis in Twister through pure weirdness and unadulterated excitement, he takes what is an otherwise dismal film and breathes some character-driven life into it.

 

As Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA) Boogie Nights he plays the cumbersome, homosexual boom operator who is in love with Dirk Diggler. With his tight clothes and awkward personality, Hoffman could have easily turned Scotty into a two-dimensional stereotype. Instead, he gives a multi-layered portrayal of misplaced affection, sweaty depression, and endearing goofiness. Notice the culmination below (semi-spoilery). 

 

As Brandt in the Coen brother’s The Big Lebowski he takes the astute personal assistant and compels us to feel his anxiety. Every time Brandt is on screen our palms leak as we experience the pressures of working for a wealthy and cruel ass of a boss. He could have faded into the background of the film, but instead he engages full force with the Coen brothers’ off beat characters and becomes a memorable part of the film.

 

As Mitch in Patch Adams he plays the perfect foil to Robin Williams’ nutty and positive Patch, but not without redemption. While Mitch is uptight, focused and jealous, Phil allows him to breathe and layers him with internal conflict. Mitch has good intentions, and eventually changes. The only reason this transition happens is because of Phil’s deft execution.

 

As Rusty in Flawless (one of Phil’s first leading roles), he turns what could have been an inflated, drag queen parade of stereotypical oddity and turns in a broken, but funny, but angry and impatient, but forgiving man who is hopelessly stuck in the wrong body.

 

As nurse Phil Parma in PTA's Magnolia he breaks our hearts with his sensitive, earnest, and gentle spirit. Refusing to take what could have been “a nice male nurse” role, he turns him into an honest welder of human love (slightly spoilery).

 

As Lester Bangs in Almost Famous he is the aesthetic voice that teaches us what makes rock and roll great. He might have been a critic full of hot air, angst, piss and vinegar, but instead he gives us subtle and meaningful phone calls on what art is about and how being uncool is awesome (minutely spoilery)  

 

As Wilson Joel in Love LIza (PSH’s first film that orbits him completely) he is a grieving widower who becomes addicted to gasoline fumes and remote-control airplanes in his fervent quest to avoid accepting his wife’s suicide and dealing with his mother-in-law. In the same way that this film takes us through someone’s specific (and acceptable) grief process, Mr. Hoffman embodies a character who is broken, quirky, angry, funny, and addicted. He does not settle for any simple conventions associated with acting out grief, but rather digs deeper into what grieving means for Wilson Joel.

 

As Dean Trumbell in PTA’s Punch Drunk Love he is a gut-busting wallop of fury and hilarity. That is all.

 

As Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly he proves that he is not bound by independent, or auteur, or deeply moody films, but can seamlessly slip into a Ben Stiller comedy and, often times, steal the show. He is believable and hilarious. He brings a liveliness into Sandy that refused to be the goofy/stupid/protagonist sidekick, but is instead a breath of fresh air to the genre and character type. Just for fun (start at 1:05 if you're in a time crunch or sick of this RIDICULOUSLY long list).

 

As Truman Capote in Capote, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, he is the utter embodiment of Truman Capote’s inner self. He is a physical, vocal, and psychological manifestation of a historical figure’s psyche and shows us how some of the greatest acting happens in moments of silence (spoilery).

 

As Owen Davian in Mission Impossible III he proves, once again, that no genre is outside of his reach. With nightmarish intensity he broods, stares, threatens, and cradles us cunningly in a delicate yet terrifying tension. And look what he pulls out of Tom Cruise in the first scene of the film!

 

As Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War (nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) he combines subtlety with shrewdness. Throughout the entire film he is a steaming volcano, ready to erupt at any minute. It is one of the finest examples of power under control, well, until this scene.* Phil takes an ornery, coarse, and impatient character and frames him with restraint.

 

As Caden Cotard in Synechdoche, New York he fashions his characterization around the sprawling, metaphysical, and irregular aesthetic of the film. Phil acts this character almost entirely in his head, and the tautness of his brow is a testament to this. The complex mental and spiritual burden of Caden to do something theatrically astounding before he dies is played with the flawless integration of sadness and fervor.

 

As Father Flynn in Doubt (nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) he personifies the subject of the parable’s material. He is jolly, kind, sensitive, unsettling, and perhaps, guilty. We toss and turn as he convinces us of one thing and then another. He masterfully forces us into an existential fray of truth and falsehood, certainty and doubt. And finally, he goes toe to toe with the master herself, and holds his own.

 

As Jack in Jack Goes Boating (also his film directorial debut) he is the cutest, ugliest, fat man with a crush you will ever see.

 

As Lancaster Dodd in PTA’s The Master (nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) he plays the titular role with an exacting normalcy and intrigue that is attractive enough for us to listen to, but odd enough to make us hesitate. He is the perfect canvas for Joaquin Phoenix’s erratic and brilliant smatterings. Their losses at the Oscars were downright offensive.


If you are insane (or me) and actually watched all these clips, you quickly see the diversity of Phil’s work. In short, it is jaw dropping. The list could go on and there are a handful of his films I haven’t mentioned, haven’t seen yet, or that, thankfully, haven’t come out. So much of what he has done has opened our eyes to the complexities of being an outcast. So much of what he has done has inspired other actors to pursue the truth at all costs. As a master craftsman his body of work will certainly survive him, and I hope you will join me in remembering, commemorating, and enjoying Philip Seymour Hoffman’s masterful display of acting for years to come. Phil will be sorely missed by the theatre and film communities. And he will be sorely missed by me.

In a New York Times interview published a little over five years ago, Phil said this:

"...acting is torturous, and it's torturous because you know it's a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, 'That's a beautiful thing and I want that.' Wanting it is easy, but trying to be greatwell, that's absolutely torturous."

You were great, Phil. You were far more than great.

Why We Need Theatre

This article was originally published at Culturemakerblog.com in January, 2014. 

A couple years ago I directed my first play: Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller. The play, essentially, explores otherness through a heartbreaking and thought provoking drama. A group of Frenchmen in the early 1940’s are picked up by the Nazis to determine whether or not they are Jews. The play takes place in the waiting room before the men are taken in one at a time to be examined for signs of Jewish-ness (if you catch my drift). Simply, it’s a long bench with a handful of nervous, terrified, oppressed, and thoughtful men on it. And in my case, one mortified director in the audience.

    During our first performance one of the men had forgotten a prop that was necessary for the narrative to progress. In lieu of said forgetfulness, the actors and audience sat in silence for what had to be four full minutes. One actor, in a valiant attempt to save the show, jumped up to offer the group cigarettes (something that wasn’t supposed to happen for thirty pages). No one responded to him and he quickly sat down and silence resumed. Never in my life have I been more horrified at a theatrical situation. Getting on stage in front of an audience and laying bare a character is easy—sitting in the audience and watching the show that you’re responsible for come to a screeching halt is torture. I started thinking about texting my stage manager (now my wife Samantha, then my fiancé) to walk out with a script and set the play straight, or calling out a line from my seat, or, most attractively, walking out of the room and never returning. I was sitting in the back, right by the door and felt myself fidget, preparing to escape if it went on any longer. After what seemed like half an hour, one actor jumped somewhere only slightly ahead in the script and the narrative resumed seamlessly (Tim Vest I am forever in your debt). To this day, I don’t know how it was salvaged. Usually when the silence sets in for that long, actors are no longer able to think clearly enough to find the right line—they’re just crapping themselves in panic. But it was recovered—thank the triune Abba, Father, Daddy, Jesus.

    After the show, which was largely successful aside from the silent hiccup/deadening abyss of a pause, I asked a few close friends about the vomit-inducing silence. All of them thought it was purposefully added tension. They figured this silence was supposed to make everyone uncomfortable and establish some kind of connection between audience and actor, and believed that it did its job. This is of course ridiculous. That much silence should have sent people out the door. But, alas, from those who I talked to it didn’t detract from the performance, and in some cases added to the life and death tension of the room.

    Why this story? Simply put, there is nothing like a live theatrical event. The potential and probability of something going wrong mirrors real life closer than many art forms. In film and in the visual arts, even if it’s done poorly, it’s intentional—the artist has decided what he/she wants you to see and now you’re seeing it. In live music performances we engage in a similar tension as in theatre, as the performer is vulnerable in front of the audience, and anything can go wrong. In music, however, at least to the trained ear, it’s difficult to mask a wrong note or flubbed lyric. You’ve either rehearsed enough and got it down, or you flub something and everyone knows—there’s not much potential for escape from failure. What sets theatre apart is its intention to say something about human existence and in many cases accurately mimic or represent it. In the unstable arena that is live theatre, anything can happen—lines, movements, and props can be forgotten; lights can break; set pieces can revolve too far and bang into a hanging scrim; actors miss their entrances; or maybe in extreme cases, an actor may not come onto the stage altogether. Regardless, the world of the play must continue. The actors must play their role with the scripted lines or not. Characters must react to any potential situation that may occur. In this tension, a community is built between actor and audience. The audience knows that anything can go wrong, and they love it. Actors don’t have two, or three, or ten, or forty takes to run a scene—every performance hinges on a singular delivery of every line and action and every performance will be different. The result is breathtaking. If we are paying attention we are swept into the narrative because the characters are before us, in the flesh. As Dale Savidge and Todd Johnson say in their book Performing the Sacred “It is the incarnation of the narrative in the flesh, space, and time that sets theatre apart.” Furthermore, not only are the characters before us, but also they are with us. When we see films, we do so with friends and family, and this is ideal. When we walk into the theatre we do so with friends, family, and with the actors. We share in the performance at a deeper level because our presence influences what happens on the stage. Actors will understand me when I say that the energy an audience gives off directly affects each performance. An opening night audience is always different from a Sunday matinee. When we go to the theatre, we are a part of the performance. To a small degree, audience members are participants in the art, even creators, not merely consumers. Savidge and Johnson put it nicely, “There are those transcendent moments in theatre when the actor has so captured a character, or the ensemble has so incarnated the story, that the audience shares in something truly magical…It takes an entire community working together at any one time to perform a live theatre piece. The actors and the stagehands, the director and the producer, the actors and the audience, all are necessary for a performance of a play. After all, if any one were absent, would there still be a play?” Theatre is an earthly representation of God incarnate, and a powerful application of communal life.

    This is a challenge to you and me. I love film. I love going to movies. I save money and ask for gift cards so I can do it often—but what about the theatre? Since film was created many of our greatest actors mastered their craft in the theatre and then moved into film—the greats moving between both. Likewise, as consumers we should not forget our roots. Before film, there was the theatre. Theatre bids us come and participate in something that is incarnational and communal. It invites us into the instability of the stage as active members in the performance. It makes us uncomfortable by how close we are to the actors—there is no screen to buffer our experience, only flesh and voice and sweat and spit (if you’re in the front row).

    Socrates complained about writing things down because then nobody would see any need to remember them. Plato accused mimetic art (theatre) of bewitching the mind and clouding our moral faculties. Some today decry film as the murderer of theatre and “3-D/dbox/theme park movie ride experience” as the death of film and Vine as the death of the “3-D/dbox/theme park movie ride experience”. All this is to say that new art forms, for better or for worse, always come along. I don’t see it as my duty to crucify them, decry their usefulness or effectiveness, and/or shun them (though I still do). I do see it as my duty to hold the many art forms in tension with one another—disciplining myself to partake in the ones I’m not naturally drawn to, and pioneer support for the ones I am.

    Whether as consumers or creators of art and culture, we should support the theatre. We should take some of our movie money and put it toward seeing a community theatre or professional production. We should discipline ourselves to sit through a three-hour production of The Crucible or a four (five, seven, nine?) hour production of Hamlet, because if we let it, it might change us. Not only can we support theatre artists, but we can also be reminded of the mystery and grace of the incarnation and partake in a communal, aesthetic experience. I’m going to engage with more theatre this year. I hope you do the same.