An Audience With the Prez: Now That's the Ticket: An Open Letter to Obama

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dear Mr. President-elect:

We realize the presidential To Do list is long and daunting. But indulge us in a little lobbying for a cause we hold dear. You've managed to put the party back into the Democratic Party -- you're the Barack Star! -- and we're desperately hoping you'll also put a thrill back into . . . theatergoing. Please revive that only-in-Washington experience that we ordinary arts patrons enjoy now and then, of rushing into unexpected glamour as we dash through a theater lobby, ticket in hand, only to be stopped by dogs and metal detectors and the big guys sprouting wires from their ears. All the trappings that mean: The Leader of the Free World is in the house.

History will not record your predecessor as a great arts lover, and while his wife has been frequently to the theater, George W. Bush has put in few appearances aside from the obligatory galas. The arts didn't figure highly on his radar screen. Yet these turbulent times cry out for the kind of catharsis the arts offer. This feels like an artistic moment. Just look at the tears, fears and ineffable feelings your election has unleashed around the world.

We've snooped around a bit and found that you and Mrs. Obama have been active arts patrons back home in Chicago. Once you're ensconced here, you may not feel the time is right for splashy nights on the town, with the nation mired in a flat-lining economy and two unpopular wars. But we urge you to consider the cascading benefits your attendance can have.

As February's 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth nears, it is well to remember how the theater defined Lincoln, an obsessive student of Shakespeare. "Some think I do wrong to go to the opera and to the theatre, but it rests me," he wrote. "A hearty laugh relieves me, and I seem better able after it to bear my cross." As an Illinois resident relatively new to national politics -- like Lincoln -- you aligned yourself with the 16th president during your campaign. We feel sure his reasons for attending the performing arts must also ring true for you: The theater experience frees the mind from the weight of the day; it's a life-affirming, communal activity that can connect us with the best of human endeavors and hopes. The president's presence in the audience reminds us of this.

Lincoln enjoyed opera and plays at a couple of Washington establishments -- a place called Grover's Theatre as well as Ford's Theatre, where, according to Ford's Theatre officials, Lincoln attended plays at least a dozen times before being shot in a private box (a grievous matter we hate to bring up, as it rather inconveniently gets in the way of our larger point). "If you think about his presidency in the middle of the Civil War, the bloodiest war that ever happened on our soil -- Lincoln would go [to the theater] just to find respite from the trials and tribulations of the presidency, and he felt that afterwards he could go back to the White House and back to being commander in chief and be that much stronger," says Paul Tetreault, producing director at Ford's Theatre.

And, Mr. President-elect, your attendance is a public sign of support for an important sector of the economy, which depends on philanthropy. The Washington National Opera has postponed next season's run of Wagner's "Ring" cycle as a cost-saving measure. Cutbacks in other institutions will surely follow. Short of a bailout plan for the arts -- we won't hold our breath -- your presence in the presidential box makes a strong statement about the importance of live entertainment. And we're happy to see that you're a financial supporter of the arts, having given $5,000 to Chicago's Muntu Dance Theatre, a company dedicated to African dance, and whose anniversary gala Michelle Obama chaired last year. Brava!

We're already envisioning the future first lady as First Patron of the Arts. (And because your girls take dance classes, might we be treated to a local school's "Nutcracker" with a pair of first daughters in the cast?) Last year Mrs. Obama showed what a good sport she is by venturing to Second City's political revue "Between Barack and a Hard Place," and the two of you took in the live production of "The Color Purple," which you called "a powerful play."

We haven't had that special buzz of a presidential visit juice our night out in years. In this critic's experience, not since the Clintons came to "Miss Saigon," and the Secret Service took special interest in the prop guns. Bill and Hillary Clinton were regular theatergoers. Michael Kahn, director of the Shakespeare Theatre, recalls their coming to "Twelfth Night" and, for security reasons, being escorted in through the garage ("past all the garbage bins," he lamented).

President Clinton showed up in other surprising ways, Kahn says. "At one point, one of our actors, Floyd King, went to the men's room backstage, but he had to wait because it was locked," Kahn recalls. "When it opened, the president came out, and he was quite shocked." Clinton has come to the Lansburgh Theatre since leaving office, Kahn reports, receiving a standing ovation from the audience when he took his seat at a performance of "Pericles" a few years ago.

Hillary Clinton often brought daughter Chelsea to the ballet. But she and the president didn't limit their visits to the major venues. They also went to the Warner Theatre to see Chelsea dance in the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," and to Lisner Auditorium and the Alden Theatre in McLean to see their daughter in the Washington School of Ballet's annual recitals.

Laura Bush has been one of the most frequently seen first ladies at the theater, taking in ballet, modern dance, opera, symphony, plays and musicals in her years here -- visits that were usually low-key, without fanfare. "I can't imagine that anyone came more often than Mrs. Bush has come to the Kennedy Center, and with a real range of interests, coming just because she wanted to come," says Michael Kaiser, the center's president. And her in-laws were famously active theatergoers as well. Tiki Davies, who logged three decades in the Kennedy Center's press office before retiring recently, says George H.W. Bush came to shows more often than any president she knew, and first lady Barbara Bush was a fixture at the now-defunct Thursday matinees going back to when her husband was vice president.

There is no topping the feeling in the theater when that presidential seal gets affixed to the box. "The uniqueness of the evening becomes highlighted, becomes more intense," Davies says. "It makes you feel glad to be there, that it's something that doesn't happen all that often and can only happen in Washington. What a wonderful little fillip for all of us: You and the president of the United States can have the same experience, be brought to tears or laughter or just joy."

We'll see you in the lobby, Mr. President-elect.

Sarah Kaufman

Dance critic

The Washington Post

© 2008 The Washington Post Company