The Culture Project’s artistic director Allan Buchman (pronounced Bush-man) draws a distinction between political theater and issue-based theater. “All theater is political as it reflects experiences one has in life, real or imaginary,” he said. “We’re drawn to issue-based theater. We want to advance the issues that are not addressed by corporate media.”
Buchman looked weary as he stared at the row of chairs on stage in his theater at 45 Bleecker Street in Manhattan where his company is re-staging “The Exonerated” on its 10th anniversary. Long pauses punctuated his answers, evoking thoughtfulness, suppressed anger or perhaps a bit of both.
“The Exonerated” is essentially a staged reading written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and it is based largely on interviews with six convicts who were sentenced to death and later exonerated. It is at once a shocking look at injustice and a powerful indictment of the death penalty. But it’s also an affirmative drama that celebrates the prisoners’ resilience, determination to move on and even their willingness to forgive their accusers. With its rotating cast — a mixture of name actors and former prisoners playing themselves — the drama has been extended through December 2.
Along with producing socially conscious plays — from exploring immigrant experiences in America to the “troubles” in Belfast — the theater hosts politically charged conversations, such as “Gaza, Goldstone and the Crisis of Impunity,” a discussion that brought together a panel of experts to consider the fallout of Judge Richard Goldstone’s criticisms of Israel’s actions during the Gaza War. Buchman says the highlight of his career was when the Redgrave family read the poems of Guantanamo detainees.
Buchman knows some of his productions and performers may raise eyebrows among Jewish audiences, though he says he has never been accused of being a self-hating Jew. “It’s like calling yourself a non-resident alien when you live here. How’s that possible? Because I may or may not share the same opinion of Israel that someone else might makes me a Jew who doesn’t agree with you,” said Buchman. “There’s nothing in the Bible or Talmud that says everyone should think the same way.”
Buchman did not start out as a theater man, let alone one with a political mission. Indeed, growing up in Meridian, Conn., he wanted to be a composer, though that ambition was short-lived. “I had the delusion that I was descended from Bach when I realized my greatest contribution to music was to stay off the stage,” he recalled. “I had the idea I could be a musician without fundamental structure. I had discipline. I practiced hours a day. But I was making up stuff that was unbearable.”
After earning his degree at the New England Institute for Stringed Keyboard Instrument Technology, he became a successful keyboard restorer and importer. When his business fell on hard times in the early 90s, Buchman rented his 10,000 square foot loft on East 91st Street as a rehearsal hall to theatrical troupes.