THE PRINCEMAKER by Robert Gelberg at FringeNYC
An Interview with Robert Gelberg

Indie Theater Now asked Robert Gelberg a few questions about his play The Princemaker.

Is this play political? Why or why not?

I think all art is political; nothing exists in a vacuum. The context in which a play was written is integral to the play itself because the play must interact with and respond to that context. The context for The Princemaker is presidential politics in 2016, which is good, because that's the subject matter as well. This is the second play in The Election Cycle, a series of plays I'd like to be working on for the rest of my life. My goal is to write one play every four years in the midst of a presidential election. After 2012 I was concerned because there was no way - no way - that the next election would be nearly as absurd as Binders Full of Romney. I was wrong. The Princemaker takes the concept of a "mega-donor" to its logical conclusion - the son of a political kingmaker takes over the responsibilities of funding politicians after his father dies. It's about the politics of money and the money of politics, but it isn't "political" in the sense that I'm trying to effect change. I don't think that plays can do that unless an audience is ready and willing to effect that change on their own. This isn't political in the way that Enemy of the People is political. Instead, The Princemaker is political in the sense that it asks audience members to make a choice. It takes stock of where we're at in a post-Citizens United America and says, "Okay, money is speech and corporations are people. Now what?"

Theater is a necessary ingredient in democratic societies. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

I think theatre is a necessary ingredient in human existence. There is a reason we have been telling stories and sharing those stories and performing those stories for our entire tenure on this planet. If theatre were really dying, like so many would have you believe, then it would have died the second after the first screening of The Great Train Robbery. We need theatre. Otherwise we wouldn't be compelled to create it. So yes, I agree that theatre is an integral part of democratic societies, but I also think it's an integral part of any society, democracy or otherwise.

Which political figure would like your show the best: Chris Christie, Hilary Clinton, Rand Paul, or Al Sharpton?

Al Sharpton by process of elimination. Rand Paul is a vocal supporter of Citizens United and thinks that money and speech are the same thing, a point to which a character in The Princemaker responds by saying "You don't understand the power of words." I don't think Hillary would enjoy the play, per se; I see her after a long day on the campaign trail lying down and watching trashy reality TV just to shut her mind off and not think about politics for a minute. Trashy reality TV. You know. Like The Apprentice. I'm going to take a wild guess here and say that Chris Christie doesn't much like the theatre. He'd sooner go to a Cowboy's game than a reading at Rattlestick. That leaves us with Al. One of the characters in this play was inspired in part by Lee Atwater, so I think Al would get a kick out of that if nothing else.

Who do you think has the right idea about theater: Brecht, Artaud, Shakespeare, or Aristotle?

Can't they all be right? Looking back it's hard to think about modern theatre without each and every one of them. Aristotle wrote the rulebook, Shakespeare mastered the rulebook, Artaud threw the rulebook in the trash, and Brecht encouraged his audiences to set the trashcan on fire. They all got us to where we are today, both for traditional forms of theatre and more experimental forms. Companies like Punchdrunk and Pan Pan owe as much to Artaud as they do to Aristotle, and some of the best Shakespeare stagings I've seen have been done with an eye to Epic Theatre. If I had to choose one of the four, however, it would have to be Aristotle; you can't break a rule if someone hasn't written it down yet, and he wrote the rulebook almost perfectly. I could do without that part about women not being able to be heroic characters, though.

Is it more important to you to write about people who have the same political/social views as you, or people who have entirely different ones?

They're both equally important in their own way, but when it comes to writing plays that are overtly political or that deal with political themes, then you have to make sure that the characters with whom you don't agree make damn good arguments for their case. The important thing is to never judge your characters. If you do, you're risking creating a caricature. The reason Angels in America is such a good play is that Kushner was able to make a character like Prior and a character like Roy equally empathetic and realized. It would have been very easy to portray Roy Cohn as a black-hatted mustache-twirler. Instead, we have a portrait of a dying man coming to terms with his hypocrisy. It's beautiful because Kushner wrote that character with love and care and not with prejudice. Playwriting requires a lot of empathy. In order to write convincing conflict, you need to be able to live inside of all sides of that conflict. It's like debate team in high school where you have to prepare arguments for both cases before you find out which side you're officially on. Audiences are smart; they sense BS very easily. Moreover, they can tell when the playwright is using a character as a mouthpiece for their own views. My hope is that audience members at The Princemaker have no idea where I personally stand on the issue of money in politics after seeing the show. My hope is that the characters speak for themselves.

posted July 29, 2016