A 'Caesar' of Our Discontent? :: Praxis Stage Founder Daniel Boudreau on the Art, and Politics, of the Stage

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 16, 2017

Praxis Stage founder and artistic director Daniel Boudreau seemingly operates from an instinctive sense that the arts -- theater among them -- is democratic, an exercise in expression undertaken by the people for the benefit of the people. Little surprise, then, that when New York's Public Theater recently saw two sponsors pull out in response their interpretation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," in which the famously ambitious Roman statesman is dressed in Trump-like wardrobe, Boudreau's response was a scintillatingly snarky press release about the upcoming Praxis Stage production of that very play, which will play this summer in repertory with "Coriolanus."

While the right wing launched into a predictably arm-waving screamfest and the left wing coolly parsed the question of why Delta dumped The Public Theater even though the same company had no such response to a 2012 production of the same play -- again, sponsored by Delta -- in which a Barack Obama-alike version of Caesar was pounced upon by knife-wielding assassins, Boudreau cut through the static with laughter. His sarcastic press release promised "to make sure that our production in no way feels timeless, or as if this transcendent piece of literature might speak to our contemporary age."

Continued the release: "Moreover we pledge that if the play does uncover contemporary resonances with our age it shall do so in an entirely safe way that in no way challenges, unsettles, or angers our precious audience. To that end we will be distancing the character of CAESAR from our viewers by having the actor perform the role in a phony English accent, replete with trills and ponderous pauses."

Epic stuff, right? But Boudreau was only hitting his stride. He followed up with this laugh-out-loud gem: "As to the scene that caused the greatest controversy, Praxis has a bold new vision for this scene that may offer more of a 'feel-good CAESAR' for our Great America. Our play's Conspirators will 'drain the swamp' of Rome on that fateful Ides of March by offering Caesar a comfortable corporate retirement package, a golden parachute, revolving-door opportunity as a lobbyist for the grain markets of Rome. We wouldn't want to spill any blood in one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, now would we?"

BTCA President and Emmy Award-winning A&E Critic Joyce Kulhawik gleefully reproduced Boudreau's release in its entirety at her influential website JoycesChoices.com, calling out the corporate sponsors that had fled the Public's production in a witty essay.

"Apparently a 'Trumpian' 'JULIUS CAESAR' was too much for Bank of America and Delta to wrap their corporate arms and brains around -- so they stabbed it in the back," Kulhawik wrote. Her willingness to discuss the situation -- and reprint the release in its full, uncensored glory -- helped achieve both of Boudreau's ends: To call out corporate disingenuousness while implicitly questioning the true nature and the artistic value of corporate sponsorships -- and to promote awareness of his company and their upcoming work.

Not bad for a new company that burst into existence as a "direct reaction" -- Boudreau's words -- to the events of the last election.

Indeed, for Boudreau art is something that exists both as part of the fabric of the moment and a response to it -- and given its social function, art does better when it's not beholden to corporate dollars. "I acted in my twenties, and then I went away from it and now I'm back again," Boudreau told EDGE in the course of a recent conversation. "I'm acting in my late 40s. I never really produced theater in any type of way, so now I am straddling the idea of what it means to produce it and to make it, but definitely the artists making it shouldn't have a concern about gunning for corporate money. I think that's a [self destructive] way to look at what you do.... I'm more than happy to be operating where I'm operating, because I think there's more of an immediacy to the theater that we can make at this level. It has more resonance, and it's a profound experience."

EDGE was only too happy to have a chance to chat with Praxis Stage's founder and artistic director, Daniel Boudreau.

EDGE: I haven't heard much about Praxis Stage before. Can you give me a quick rundown?

Daniel Boudreau: We actually started on November 9, after the election of Trump. The [Arthur Miller] play 'Incident at Vichy' had been in my mind throughout the election. On November 9, I felt compelled to as an artist to do something in direct reaction to the election of Trump, and 'Vichy' seemed like the perfect play to do.

'Vichy' is a play that depicts a holding room in Vichy, France, during the Nazi occupation. The room is filled with Jewish people -- or, suspect Jews, because they're brought in to be interrogated, and not everyone who is brought into the next room comes out of that room again.

With all the hate speech in the Trump campaign, with the spike in hate crimes we were seeing around the election and post-election, that seemed like an important play to do, so I put together a theater company to do it. We really did it on the fly, because my vision for it was to get it up inauguration week. Inauguration Day was January 20, and we opened on the Thursday before. It was a short run, and it was quite a success. We did that in a lo-fi [manner], really sort of going back to my youth in punk rock - DIY putting shows together, that sort of experience of making art. Praxis is kind of informed by that.

The second production we did, 'Jesus Hopped the A-Train,' by Stephen Adly Guirgis, we stepped up a little bit in term of budget and length of the run. 'Vichy' had a very short run; we did seven performances. We did three weeks of 'Jesus Hopped the A-Train.' We did it in a similar space; the first two productions we've done have been at arts spaces. The first was at The Inner Sanctum in Dudley Square, which is kind of a collective of artist. We did 'Jesus Hopped the A-Train' at Dorchester Art Project, which is similarly sort of an artists' space; they have a gallery there and they also have a performance space.

That low-on-the-ground, alternative space aesthetic is what we've been doing for our plays. Also, the idea that we wanted to do a play at Dudley Square and a play at Fields Corner is part of what Praxis is up to: Expanding what we think about in terms of where theater is. Putting it in neighborhoods your average theatergoer might feel a little bit trepidatious about. As a Bostonian born and raised, I hate the segregation of the city and the racist nature of that segregation -- how people don't even know different areas will denigrate them, or just are fearful of them. One thing we want to do is look for those kinds of spaces so that people who go to theater can get out of downtown spaces. We also want to put theater in neighborhoods that perhaps don't have a lot of theater going on. We love it when we look out and we see a diverse audience of people, from entrenched theatergoers to people of all sorts of different backgrounds. We also like doing plays that are diverse and have diverse casts. That kind of mandate is very important to the work that we do.

EDGE: It's just an amazing feat to have pulled together a company, much less a production... much less two productions!... in the short time since the election.

Daniel Boudreau: I'm proud of that, for sure. It's indicative of a few things: I'm a little bit of a lunatic in terms of the compulsion I have to do this right now, in terms of the world that we're in. Secondly, it has to do with, again -- I think of the early punk moment, and also the early hip-hop moment, these moments when people were making art without a lot of resources, making art that challenged the status quo, challenged the hegemony in which they were born. And people go shit done! Praxis Stage seeks to get shit done.

I'm extraordinarily proud, to tell you the truth, of the fact that we did these two plays, particularly 'Vichy,' because we put it together on November 9 and we had it up in late January, and that's around the holidays, And it's a huge cast -- we had 16 people in that play, completely cast with beautiful Boston actors that we loved, a diverse cast. A lot of these people were Jews, but at the same time we cast the play with African Americans, with a Southeast Asian actor, with Latino actors, to show the people who are in the most peril under Trump and his kind of rhetoric.

EDGE: I'm getting the sense you won't be relying on any corporate sponsors.

Daniel Boudreau: We're not, actually! People have been extraordinarily generous to us. When you do theater at this level... I'm by no means a rich man. We're doing shows that challenge my bank account. I throw my money in and I get the shows made, and I hope that we make it back at the door or we make it back in donations. We've broken even, more or less, for both shows that we've done, and I'm happy about that. We break even because we've been lucky enough to have some extraordinary generosity on the fundraising front. In the world we're living in, with a lack of funding for the arts, fringe theater relies a good deal on social media fundraising campaigns and the like. We really did tremendously in terms of audience as well, we had good turnouts. So, we're not going after corporate sponsorship.

Now, if a corporation wanted to give us -- as in that satirical press release we put out -- if they want to give us a plain paper bag full of money with no strings attached, sure we'll take it! But we're certainly not in the market for any sort of corporate money as we generally understand it. One of the most horrifying things about the flap over the Public's 'Caesar' -- I mean, that's Bank of America's money, in a sense; that's Delta's money, in a sense; they can do with it what they want. But at the same time, if you look at these companies -- particularly Bank of America; they had a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS, and it made $4.4 billion in profits. During the banking crisis the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve bailed them out to the tune of $1.3 billion.

They are tax cheats, essentially. These are companies that push us around in our economy. They are getting rich on the backs of all us, particularly the working class and the poor, and now they owe us this money in one form or another. Occasionally they make a move to mollify whoever by giving money to the arts. I'm not that outraged by [the way Bank of America and Delta pulled their sponsorship of The Public Theater], but I think it's indicative of the way they want to expand their reach to push us around in culture as well. They aren't simply satisfied to push us around in our economy and society and in our political life. Now they want to find a way to reach into the arts.

EDGE: Praxis made quite a splash with that satirical press release you mentioned a moment ago, mocking how corporate sponsors fled the Public Theater's depiction of Julius Caesar. What's the story behind that press release? Were you just fed up and fired it off? Did you get together with others and work it up that way?

Daniel Boudreau: To tell you the truth, that was like a 5 a.m. job on my part. I was pissed off about it, I was thinking about it, and I had a couple ideas about the fact that they're treating the assassination of Caesar as a mid-play surprise. It strained credulity and it was ridiculous, the way that it was being spun by the media. I woke up with some wisecracks about it.

There were two things that were going on in the reaction -- one, they wanted to say that Shakespeare should be distanced from the world we live in, which is insanity. It transcends time. Those texts are magical in terms of the way they illuminate our current age again and again and gain. So I thought it was funny to say, 'We're gonna do a Caesar that speaks in a phony English accent.' A safe way of doing Shakespeare that you don't see much anymore, but when I was a kid you'd see a lot of ponderous pauses and trills in the language. And I also thought it would be funny to think of a Trumpean Caesar -- what would that mean? It would mean that Cassius and Brutus would come to him with a plan to have them transition into a job lobbying for the grain markets of Rome. That would be their way of draining the swamp.

So, I woke up with those wisecracks in mind and I put that press release together. And, having something of a punk aesthetic, I addressed that to biggest critics in Boston, instead of getting it out to the fringe media. I didn't have it in mind that it would get any traction, so instead of getting out to some of the theater blogs, or the arts journalists of some of the smaller organs, I addressed it to theater critic of the Boston Globe, and to Joyce Kulhawik.

I counted it as a joke to myself. Part of what you're doing when you put a company together is the marketing. So, in a sense, I'm courting these people to get them to know there is a theater company called Praxis, not necessarily thinking I'm going to get attention from them and down the line maybe they're review something that we're in. At the same time, I'm genuinely trying to get the smaller press to respond to the theater that we do. So it was a joke, to me, to address it to the bigger critics of the town, and to dress it up -- 'For Immediate Release!' The whole thing made me chuckle as I was doing it.

To my surprise, but also to her great credit, Joyce Kulhawik emails me back immediately, and she thinks it's really funny, and she decides to run it, which was great. Joyce Kulhawik has been a fixture in this town for a long time, and it's obvious she's s socially-minded person, a progressive person - but in my mind I'm thinking, 'She's kind of mainstream; she'll probably take some of the more incendiary rhetoric out of it.' Like the last paragraph, that says really directly, so there's no confusion, the kind of cretin and hooligan we find Trump to be, because I don't think that can be said enough. No disrespect to Joyce Kulhawik, but I was thinking she might trim it down... and to her great credit, she ran the whole thing! I was very pleased to see that, and it's gotten attention from that, and from being passed around.

It's sweet, but again it was a groggy, crusty-eyed, 5 a.m. propping myself up at my computer punk rock joke. On reflection, I wish I had gotten another hour with it because I think I cold have made it funnier and eliminated some of the punctuation errors and sentence structure errors. Yeah, it was satire, but it was marketing as well.

EDGE: You never know which tomato is going to stick to the wall, but sometimes you've just gotta throw a tomato.

Daniel Boudreau: That's exactly right!

Praxis Stage's "Tyrannical Summer," comprised of the William Shakespeare plays "Julius Caesar" and "Coriolanus" playing in repertory, is slated to run August 16 through 27, Wednesdays through Sundays, alternating weeks at Daney Park and Longfellow Park, Cambridge. For more information please go to praxis.stage @Facebook

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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