Merry Marxmas:The Plight of the Ruling Class

by Jason Hart photo by Laura Gorrzek


May 5 is Karl Marx’s birthday, but in the world of Entrepreneurial Communism, it’s also Marxmas. On Marxmas, Ben Turk has been known to dress as the author of The Communist Manifesto and take to the streets – to sell Marx-themed merchandise. You aren’t likely to see Turk this Marxmas, because he’ll be busy with The Plight of the Ruling Class, a new collection of one-act plays being produced by Insurgent Theatre, the company he co-founded and runs with Tracy Doyle.

Insurgent Theatre launched under the name S-MartKino in 2003. Director and actor Doyle teamed up with Turk, who writes. Their vision was to bring high quality, locally produced political theatre to the masses, and to change America’s current political system while doing so.

Entrepreneurial Communism guides the practice of Insurgent Theatre. This theory, at first glance an inherent contradiction, was formed by Turk while he was a Political Science student at UWM. Turk explains it this way: “It’s communist because it believes in an overhaul of our economic system, where the worker receives the full product of their labor. It’s entrepreneurial because it aims to achieve that by going into business instead of politics.”

Entrepreneurial communism works like this: the revenues from each show are split 50/50, with half divided evenly amongst all of the cast and crew, and with the other half being used as seed money for the next show. Insurgent is also careful about where and how they spend their money: “We won’t sell ads in the program to someone who isn’t a small, local business. We won’t buy shit at Wal-mart. We try to keep it as small and local as possible.”

The Plight of the Ruling Class is a set of three one-acts that focuses on incendiary issues: racism, Muslim rights, rape. The plays are written by Turk and Milwaukee playwright John Manno. Doyle is directing two of the pieces, and Alamo Basement’s Mike Q. Hanlon is directing the third. I watched an early run-through of the plays, and I was blown away by the quality of the acting and writing, and also by the courage demonstrated by their choice of topics.

Cured, the play written by Manno, is especially interesting. Set in an alternate version of reality, Cured makes a statement about our blind acceptance of cultural norms and practices. I’ve been asked not to reveal the most shocking parts of Cured, and I won’t. I don’t enjoy learning crucial information about pieces before I see them. I’ll only say that you should make every attempt to see this play, or have someone who does tell you what it’s about.

Insurgent’s most memorable project was the original full-length one act Bring the War Home, about 1960s radical group The Weather Underground. Bring the War Home was written by Turk, and directed by Doyle. It was the first play produced in Insurgent’s current home, the Astor Theatre, and sold out every performance except for one during a massive blizzard.

Insurgent loves nothing so much as conflict. It’s disappointing to them, then, that self-selecting audiences at previous shows have led to unitary interpretations of their work. “No one disagreed with us. We were hoping we could create a discussion. It was more people who agreed with each other talking amongst themselves,” Turk said of the talkback afterwards.

“That’s something we’re addressing in the rewrite,” said Doyle. “We are addressing the concern that most left-wingers saw it as a push towards doing the things the Weather Underground were doing. It wasn’t supposed to be pro-violence or pro-pacifism.”

“Ultimately, it’s a criticism of political action – that going and fighting the state is the way to change society,” said Turk. Insurgent prefers to work from within, believing that change is ultimately rooted in the economy. Their theory is that the first step is to develop new economic patterns and systems, and then the politics and society will fall into place.

They aim to transform the theatre scene too, bringing in people without experience. “There are a lot of people who have never done theatre before, and thought maybe that’s something I can do…” said Doyle. “But then they’re intimidated by the theatre scene,” continued Turk. Turk and Doyle do not come from theatre backgrounds – Doyle was a microbiology student and works in a lab, Turk has a degree in political science from UWM.

Insurgent has recently entered into collaboration with Milwaukee theatre groups Alamo Basement, The Paris Business Review, and Pink Banana. The four groups have formed a DIY collective to assist each other and to bring entertaining theatre to the Milwaukee community. Plight is the first show produced by this as-yet unnamed collective, using the talents of members of all four groups. Perhaps Milwaukee will be the home base of an entrepreneurial communist DIY theatre movement.

Insurgent Theatre’s Plight of the Ruling Class runs 8 PM May 3-6, 10-13 at the Astor Theatre (Inside of the Brady Street Pharmacy).
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Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2006