The New Phase of Insurgent Theatre.
An explanation from Ben Turk.

For the last six months or so, I've been working on a new vision for Insurgent Theatre. After emptying my bank account for this project a third time, going into further debt and deeper financial instability than ever, I still cannot quit. Instead, I've recognized that I gotta switch gears to a more modest and sustainable model.

My first few years with the company, I really deeply believed in theatre. I argued that there is a coming shift in our cultural economy, that capitalism is not only terrible, but also obsolete and ultimately boring. I thought we were on the cusp of an exciting post-capitalist adventure.

I believed that people would get sick of watching YouTube videos, that we'd leave our houses and have visceral live experiences instead. I believed that we'd get sick of being required to pay what the box office says a live performance is worth rather than determining value ourselves. Since the start, Insurgent was an experiment in a model where audiences determined price, where workers received the full product of their labor, and where interactive, tactile live entertainments would also engage and challenge the ideological foundations of contemporary late-stage capitalism, both in form and content.

The last time Insurgent transformed, in 2008, from a local Milwaukee DIY theatre company, to a stripped-down touring anarchist troupe, it was to pursue this vision on a both larger and more realistic scale. After realizing that only a precious few people in every city were ever gonna be interested in what we do, we hit the road to reach as many of them as possible.

That experiment has failed, unsurprisingly. We knew it would. One simply cannot make anti-capitalist art within a capitalist world. Driving around the country to connect with every radical niche audience we could find and passing a hat among poor people, many of whom were already tapped out on supporting their own local anarchist projects, recent arrestees, or DIY scenes proved to be a recipe for poverty, debt and drudgery. We choked on the gas we burned on these trips, and strangled ourselves with an emotional claustrophobia that grew toxic over time.

Speaking for myself, I eventually lost all the best things about being creative, all the things that sustained me, and found myself trapped in a combination of starving artist exhaustion, activist burn out, and some of the most mind-numbing day jobs imaginable. Motivation, let alone optimism became exceptionally difficult to find.

Lots of people said they were changed by the work we did, lots of people loved and appreciated what we had to share, and the money we raised sent resources and support to some of the most oppressed and stigmatized people in america, many of whom described our work as a lifeline connecting them to the outside world. I'm very proud of everything we did, but on a really practical level I simply cannot afford to live with this kind of project in my life anymore.

I still believe that capitalism is obsolete, I still think that humanity will collectively get off the internet and abolish everything, even the most fundamental concepts like "price" and "currency" someday. I just recognize that today is not that day. The grip with which capitalism strangles each and every one of us is tighter and harder to throw off than I thought. Or... more accurately, I knew this would be impossible, but I wanted to try it anyway, and I've grown tired. Insurgent was only ever about succeeding for brief hysterical moments. Victory never showed us more than a fleeting glimpse. Most of the time our ambitions did not go beyond failing, but--to quote Samuel Beckett--doing our best to "fail better".

Also, over the journey from know-it-all political science student and artist to working-on-my-shit anarchist, I gained a deeper understanding of capitalism. I no longer understand capitalism in Marxist terms of "political economy" and "modes of production". Now I understand capitalism in brutal terms of trauma and terror. This system needs to create violence and disruption in human lives to maintain itself, and certain people bear the brunt of that terror in ways that are impossible for me to understand, let alone defeat. Idealistic visions of beating capitalism by creating better alternatives (or of beating capitalism at all, really) denies the deep entrenchment and pain this system causes.

Imagining myself as someone who can live a life of constant confrontation and transformation of society through challenging intense works of art is egotistical and naive. The pain in this world is more than any of us can bear. The next phase of Insurgent Theatre will be more modest in this regard. We will accept our limited agency, we will reach to broader audiences with (some) less didactic work, and we will settle for a role as mere propaganda producers, rather than revolutionaries. I'm personally not giving up on my work supporting prison rebels, but I'm no longer going to only work on projects or with people who center those ambitions.

As in 2008, we are going both bigger and more realistic. The three new projects of Insurgent Theatre are a podcast, a radio play, and an illustrated serial novel. All of them will be distributed for free through the internets, and all will depend upon donations from audiences given via some gross fee-charging online donation system.

I have recognized that while it only might be true that the master's tools will never destroy the master's house*, it almost certainly is true that the only tools at our disposal are the masters' tools. If we need to pick up what is at hand, rather than waiting to build some pure and perfect weapon, so be it.

When the new phase of Insurgent Theatre picks up the tool of the internet, we also put down the tools of the internal combustion engine and the interstate highway system. When we switch to relying on paypal donations rather than passing a hat, we're losing some immediacy and face time, but we're also losing a system of payment that looks and feels a lot like passing the offering plate at church.

The biggest loss I feel with these new projects is the lack of a tangible physical presence. We won't be doing in your face, "up against the wall motherfucker" live performance anymore. As excited as I am about the new shit (and I do feel good and proud of all of it) I can't imagine being really satisfied for long by putting content through the mediation of virtual reality via the internets.

I hope this is a temporary situation. These internet-based projects are the next phase of Insurgent Theatre, but maybe they won't be the last. Maybe someday we'll come full circle and return to our home as a local Milwaukee DIY theatre company.

Come along and see what happens. *This quote originates from Audre Lorde, and the master's tools she is talking about are not tools like the internet and cars, but rather the tools of knowledge production and legitimacy. I feel like her quote has been decontextualized many times and has a more universal meaning at this point, but actually, even in that context, I stand by my statement. As much as I may try to act otherwise, the voice I have and the knowledge I share is always going to be informed by my position as a White dude speaking within the context of patriarchy and white supremacy. Even in the context of knowledge, where words are tools, all the tools we speak (at least in any european language) carry a shit ton of phallologocentrism from history.

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