Je Suis Charlie

I've been trying to process the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris. I try to believe that it won't happen in America, but of course it could.

I really am Charlie. My life is spent making public art, telling stories, and a great deal of the time, indulging in fierce, even offensive satire. And a healthy portion of that satire is directed at religion. What if someone told me that we couldn't produce bare or Bukowsical or Bat Boy because they're sacrilegious? What if someone killed me merely because I wrote Johnny Appleweed, easily a quarter of which would be offensive to many hardcore Christians?

We take the freedom to offend for granted. Satire likes to grab you by the throat and shake you, to get your attention, and offense is one way to do that. Think "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue" in Cry-Baby or "Mama Gimme Smack on the Asshole" in Jerry Springer. It wakes you up from the (cultural or political) Matrix you're sleeping in, and slaps you awake. New Line does a lot of shows with an agenda like that. It never even occurred to me that we couldn't produce Jerry Springer the Opera because of its content – which is really offensive and really sacrilegious, FYI – because it's also a smart, insightful piece of theatre about the dysfunction of our culture in this time of massive change and upheaval. And art makes order out the chaos of the world around us and inside us. We need that.

I remember the year I graduated high school, Theatre Project Company, here in St. Louis, lost both their theatre and funding for Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a wickedly funny satire (Stray Dog Theatre did an excellent production a while back), but it's hard to believe people were that scared of it. But like Charlie Hebdo, it was shining a light on the dark and/or stupid side of religion.

When we were doing Hands on a Hardbody last season, it occurred to me that it was the first time in twenty-four years that religion was a major theme of a show and not in a critical or ironic light. The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green told me that it hadn't occurred to them to make religion that central a theme, until they met the real people the characters are based on, and saw how much religion pervaded their culture. But that show was the exception for us.

I think back through all the shows we've produced over the years on controversial topics. We really are Charlie. The great actor Larry Luckinbill wrote to me on my 21st birthday, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." New Line lives by this idea and it has served us well these last twenty-four years. We do our audience a disservice if we self-censor in their name.

The whole point of terrorism is that the idea is even bigger and more destructive than the actual attack, so that fear then drives us more than reason, so that we defeat ourselves. What will be the fallout from The Interview and Charlie Hebdo? Will film studios and magazines self-censor in fear? Charlie Hebdo responded to the attack by putting a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover of their next issue. Well, fuck yeah. But television networks in the West will not show it. Is it too simplistic to say, then, that the terrorists won?

The only thing we can do in response to all this is take even more seriously our job to illuminate, using all the tools of our trade, including the fiercest satire. Did I mention that Jerry Springer the Opera opens in a few weeks...?

We can't do anything else, because the darker the world gets, the brighter and more piercing our light has to be.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.