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Republican Theater Festival in Philadelphia explores conservative-liberal divide

West Philadelphia playwright and director Cara Blouin was watching a satirical play about torture when she had a revelation: Why do theater people so often assume audiences share their liberal values?

West Philadelphia playwright and director Cara Blouin was watching a satirical play about torture when she had a revelation: Why do theater people so often assume audiences share their liberal values?

From that moment sprung Blouin's latest brainstorm, the Republican Theater Festival. It explores conservative ideas through the medium of theater.

A self-described independent "leaning liberal right now," Blouin has invited the elephants into the room in the hope that Democrats and Republicans will at least try to understand one another.

"The Republican Theater Festival isn't about changing the way people vote. It's about changing the way that we listen," she explains in a promotional video for the event, which runs Nov. 12 to 14 as part of the American Presidency series at Plays & Players Theatre.

As word of the festival spread through the theater community over the summer, it drew fire, unsurprisingly.

"I still have friends who just won't talk about it with me," she said. "They are waiting for it to be over."

Blouin is used to living in the divide. Her father is a conservative, her mother a liberal Democrat. They have been married for 35 years.

Blouin, 33, believes theater is the perfect place to confront controversy.

Last year, angered by an essay in the Broad Street Review asking whether female behavior increased the likelihood of sexual assault, she wrote a humorous play, Dan Rottenberg is Thinking about Raping You. Rottenberg, author of the essay, later apologized for his comments.

Not everyone in the arts community has embraced the festival. As of Friday, Blouin was still trying to find an actor who would play an anti-abortion character.

Nathaniel Foley nearly changed his mind after accepting a role as a former CIA operative, Professor Acton, in the play Propaganda. The character makes extreme statements about race and religion, and his political leanings are unclear.

As Foley weighed the decision, Blouin asked him what other roles he had played recently. The answer: "Rapist, child molester, ax murderer."

They laughed, but Foley feared the Acton character's lines might "overstep villainy and lurch into ham-fisted offensiveness."

Foley stuck with the role, but his quandary delighted the play's author, Mike Long, who has written speeches for George W. Bush and Gov. Christie, and who teaches writing at Georgetown University.

Long, a fan of movie director Quentin Tarantino and playwright Neil LaBute, said he wants to pack such an emotional punch that the audience experiences catharsis.

"I disagree that you can go too far," Long said. "If someone in the audience walks out in anger, if someone is so angry they shout, that's my goal."

Long is a libertarian. He plans to vote for Mitt Romney. But at least one liberal playwright managed to sneak into the Republican Theater Festival.

Quinn Eli says he never thought of his drama, Running Amok, about an African American athlete trying to take responsibility for a personal scandal, as conservative or political. At least not until an artistic director asked him to tone down a humorous liberal character.

Eli, who teaches writing at Philadelphia Community College, wouldn't agree to alter the character, but he began to realize that people saw messages he had not intended in the play.

"Somehow, what seemed to me to be a play about integrity and self-sufficiency has been conceived by a lot of folks as conservative," Eli said. "It wasn't written that way. . . . The objective of the play was to write about somebody making a clear moral stand."

Eli said he was troubled by how conservatives seem to have appropriated the value of personal responsibility.

"I believe deeply in the concept of self-sufficiency and moral responsibility . . . but I got [that] from my parents, who were screaming liberals," Eli said.

Blouin expected many submissions for the festival would focus on social questions, such as abortion or gay rights, but most did not. Instead, marginalization emerged as a primary theme.

In Battle Hymn, playwright Ludmilla Bollow explores the feelings of a couple who try to save a Jesus statue in a public park. In 501(c) Me, David Marcus does a humorous send-up of the artistic community's financial dependence by imagining a world where individuals can become nonprofits, recruiting friends as donors.

In Home from College, Eric Balchunas tells of a teenage daughter who returns home, attacks her parents' values, and asks them for money.

Balchunas, 39, said the story was based somewhat on himself as a younger man.

"I remember a time coming home and kind of rebelling, rejecting the whole suburban existence," said Balchunas, known to many fans of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for his work Wawapalooza.

A social liberal, he is worried enough about the national debt that he made a documentary about it.

Like Blouin, he hopes the theater will serve up an antidote to the quick-hit political discussions that dominate television and social media.

"You have conservative-type plays done by liberal actors, and I think it opens up a dialogue," Balchunas said, "I think that is something missing these days. It's pretty polarized."