Ben Turk surrenders to "obsolete bourgeois institutions"
The Milwaukee actor-playwright bids adieu to the city with one last show
Milwaukee actor/playwright Ben Turk co-founded Insurgent Theatre in 2003 with the stated goal of taking theater “out of the lifeless hands of obsolete bourgeois institutions, one production at a time.” Turk's latest act of theatrical rebellion is Ulysses' Crewmen, a two-person play about a government delegate who's taken captive en route to a G8-type meeting. The show—which premieres Friday at Cream City Collectives and plays locally through September—will be a going-away production for Turk, who has decided to leave town for the East Coast. The A.V. Club spoke with Turk about the show and the gulf between professional and punk-rock theater.
The A.V. Club: Why are you leaving Milwaukee?
Ben Turk: It’s been really hard to do theater here for a long time. Now that I’m starting to tour more, it’s a lot easier to tour on the East Coast, where you can set up a circuit that you play regularly.
AVC: Was there a breaking point?
BT: It was a long series of disappointments and frustrations. Last summer when we did Paint The Town and Systems, we had really, really bad turnouts. At that point, it was like, I’m putting all my time into making theater here, and it’s just not getting audiences. There’s this gulf with theater. There are the conventional theater people, who want everything to be polished and perfect. And there’s us, and we obviously aren’t that. We all work full-time jobs and do theater in addition to that, so we don’t have as much time to rehearse as other people. It’s like punk rock—it doesn’t matter if they miss a note here or there, they just do it, and it’s got an energy. So they don’t like what we’re doing, and everybody else has this perception of theater as being that polished, perfect, boring, and stale stuff, so they don’t even try what we’re doing. So it’s hard to put together an audience.
AVC: So it’s more of a general attitude in the city?
BT: I think that art is not very appreciated in Milwaukee. I’ve also never drank in my life, so living in the most alcoholic city in the country kind of frustrates me. Every time I go to a bar with my friends and it’s packed full of people, and we’re leaving a show that hardly any people saw, it’s like, “Oh, this is what everyone in this town wants to do.”
AVC: There’s a political element to Ulysses' Crewmen and other plays you’ve written. Is there an overall message to your work?
BT: A lot of the things I write deal with political violence, and the idea that you can’t be non-violent in the world we live in. Ulysses' Crewmen is about somebody who is just overwhelmed by living in the United States, which is basically a modern empire, and that there are all kinds of people around the world suffering for our petty benefits. But it’s not just cut and dried. It’s not advocating a certain action. It takes an action, and the play starts in the middle of that action, and deals with the difficulties of trying to act against the empire. The message of the show is not necessarily in the content of the show. The content of the show discusses things I want people to think about, and it doesn’t discuss them in a conclusive way. But it’s also about the way we produce it, and the idea that anybody can make art. Most of the shows we do are free; we ask for donations. That’s a different kind of relationship with the audience than you typically have at a show. I think that’s the future of theater, which is encountering what music encountered when rock ‘n’ roll was invented. Theater is finally getting out of the big spaces. I think the big companies will shrink or fail completely, and the only people who will be able to survive are people who are doing things more like I’m doing.