It started with satire. After years of watching conservatives lambasted on stage, playwright Robert Cooperman thought, well, what about the other side?
There was much to make fun of on the left, and since he couldn’t find a single play with a conservative perspective, he decided that he would do it himself.
The idea burgeoned into a theater festival with more interest than he’d expected, and now, three years down the road, Cooperman has a clearer picture of what he wants to do, and has set forth a mission.
“I have been thinking about: ‘What does conservative theater mean?’ Because people ask that question,” Cooperman said.
“It’s both thematic, which that’s the obvious answer—conservative theater is thematic in that it portrays a positive vision of America, or calls on the individual to bring about change and not the government, or it believes in a higher power, something like that.
“But then there’s the artistic side of it. The plays … can’t simply be extended sitcom situations … and they have to demonstrate to me some knowledge of past masters.
“So I’m trying to find those plays that I’m going to call conservative in that they hearken back, the traditional meaning of conservative, they hearken back to earlier examples that made the foundation for what we could have today. People tend to throw out the past and say that it’s not relevant anymore. My argument is, it’s very relevant.”
‘Get a Rise Out of People’
Cooperman, 57, said he’s been interested in theater since he was a young boy. He’d participated in productions, but it wasn’t until high school that he gathered the courage to audition for a play. He later became a theater major in college.
“I love performing, but I really loved writing for the theater,” Cooperman said. He’d write scenes and skits, and he loved the response.
“You see people reacting to them, and you say, ‘Well, I can get a rise out of people, I can get a response out of people,’ and it made me feel, you know, purposeful. So that became my true love of the theater.
“It’s just been a love that’s been with me for a long time.”
Cooperman grew up in New York, in a fairly apolitical but traditional household, so he had always been very aware of what the Democrats stood for, and less familiar with who the conservatives were. He remembers the school doing a model Congress one year, where he and 500 students were Democrats, and there were about 12 Republicans.
“But I always had a particular feeling about things that was different,” Cooperman said. “I was very interested in what the Republicans had to say, I was very interested in what William F. Buckley was writing.”
Then Ronald Reagan was elected, and Cooperman, at the time in college, thought, “I agree with him.” He started calling himself a conservative Democrat, but realized that wasn’t the case.
“Why am I pretending to be a Democrat to go along, or sometimes even a Republican? Why aren’t I just saying I’m a conservative?” he said. “That’s what I believe, I believe in the sanctity of the family, I believe in the sanctity of the Constitution. Why should I hide who I am?”
Cooperman has since moved to Ohio, where he went to get his doctorate. Columbus, where his theater company is based, has an active theater community with some 30 companies, and many, many productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Annie.”
It was really in the past decade or so when Cooperman noticed a “concerted effort” to make fun of conservatives, or conservative issues.
“To portray conservatives as Midwestern bumpkins who are very ignorant and unworldly,” he said. The derision went on both on and off stage, where critics and members of the theater community voiced frankly intolerant opinions. “I always found there was this obligatory attack or comment in a play about conservatives—if they wanted a quick laugh line, they’d say ‘Oh, well, he’s a conservative’ or ‘He’s a Republican!’ and, of course, the all-knowing audience doubles over in laughter.”
“If it’s OK for people on the left to protest what they see in society, to make fun of what they see in society, to pose what they see as troubling in society as a problem, then why can’t people on the right?” he asked. He started writing the parodies.
Mid-2016, Cooperman formed the nonprofit Stage Right Theatrics, and launched the Conservative Theatre Festival in 2017.
Disagreement Does Not Equal Hate
Cooperman went on social media and did a call for plays. When most theater companies do so, they get hundreds of submissions. He expected to get three.
“I got 38, and I was thrilled,” Cooperman said. He also received an outpouring of thanks. “Many of whom would write to me and say, ‘Thank you, because I’ve looked for an outlet for my work, and I can’t find one, and you’re it.'”
The next year, there were even more submissions. The festival got coverage from HBO Vice News, American Theatre magazine, and local media the first year, but very little media interest since its inception.
“The downside is I’ve been viciously attacked on Facebook, and other social media platforms,” Cooperman said. “They say, ‘This has got to be terrible, this has got to be fascist,’ but they never come see the plays! They never come see the shows.”
In addition to the festival, Stage Right Theatrics puts on a few other plays a year, like David Mamet’s works, or the verbatim theater piece “Ferguson” by Phelim McAleer.
The local community’s reception to Cooperman’s conservative theater has been mixed. He still works with the local arts foundation and a consortium of theater companies, but it gets tough to find actors.
“Before I ever call them back, I send them a letter and email, and I say this is who we are, this is what we’re about. We only are seeking people who love theater, we don’t care what color you are,” Cooperman said. There are some actors who don’t want to be associated with that, and never respond to the callbacks.
Of the actors Cooperman has worked with, there are a few conservatives, but many are liberals who believe in art and freedom.
“For the most part, they’re people who say, ‘What’s wrong with presenting the other side?'” Cooperman said.
“And I will say, I don’t know why actors think we come to rehearsal and discuss politics—we discuss the play.”
The plays sometimes deal with political hot-button issues, but not always. Cooperman described three from the past festivals that stood out in his mind, and one was about post-birth abortion.
“This was before the laws where you could discuss with your doctor whether you wanted the baby to live,” Cooperman said. It was touching, and he thought it was terribly brave of the playwright to take on this subject.
The last play of the first festival was very on the nose, with a conservative and liberal debating issues. But “they ultimately found common ground,” Cooperman said. It had a positive end game.
He also had fond memories of a non-political play called “Doughnut Shop Dates,” and not just because he and his wife played the characters together on stage.
“This older man meets this older woman every week at a donut shop and chat, and his wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s, she doesn’t know him anymore,” he said.
“[The older woman’s] husband has left her. And she attempts to maybe make a relationship that’s more than just friends. But he refuses to, because he made a commitment and a vow to his wife.”
Looking for Conversation
The motto of Stage Right Theatrics is “disagreement does not equal hate.”
“Because I want people to understand. The conservative point of view should not be considered hateful simply because we disagree,” he said.
“If there’s one word that comes up a lot with what I do, it’s ‘hate.’ Hate has become such an overused word it’s become like ‘nice.'”
For the most part, the audiences, though slow-growing, have been receptive.
Cooperman does talkbacks after each play, sometimes hosted by a scholar when they put on more established plays outside the festival.
“This is where people tell us [what they thought], where I’ve gotten some of the best opinions and best feedback,” Cooperman said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘I’m a die-hard liberal and I didn’t think I’d want to come to this, but I did and I’m glad I saw it.'”
He’s not looking for converts, just conversation.
“You’ve given me a side I didn’t know,” they say. And that’s a job well done, even if the people in the audience that day were mostly there because they were friends of the actors.
“I think that’s how you open up dialogue, and that’s very healthy,” Cooperman said.
Cooperman is sent material all the time, and has read enough new plays to last him a lifetime. It’s caused him to start writing a book, called “Bad Plays.”
“People in theater are generally about musicals and stars, and ‘I want to play my favorite part.’ They don’t understand where theater came from, they don’t understand theater’s purpose … they just think of theater as Broadway and stardom.”
Cooperman, whose favorite play is “Our Town,” wants to see a revival of tradition in the theater.
He refers to Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams, none of whom would be considered conservative, but who wrote some very good plays—because they worked within the tradition.
“[O’Neill], again, no conservative there, but by today’s standards, he is. He broke barriers … and was someone who looked back to the classics, to get into inspiration, and actually Americanize them,” Cooperman said.
He wishes to see more plays that show an understanding of theater that came before, not “extended sitcom sketches, or [plays that] work against human nature, or the apocalypse, that’s another thing.”
“I don’t want to present a world that has gone so awry that it’s uninhabitable, or that existence is miserable. This to me is not a positive—no ancient Greek was putting on plays that said life is miserable. It may have been miserable for Oedipus, but it wasn’t for the people who lived around Oedipus once everything was solved,” he said.
“I just find that so degrading and so disheartening, when I see any kind of art, especially by young people, that shows nothing but doom, gloom, sickness, and that this world is irretrievably awful.”
As such, his mission with conservative theater is to also shine a light on the positive.
“I’m not talking about Pollyanna, I’m talking about something that reclaims humanity’s goodness, or shows that there is goodness in the world,” he said.