Monday, March 14, 2011

Politically Potent Theatre

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Contributed by Betty Shamieh


It is essential to distinguish between one’s responsibilities as a citizen and one’s work as an artist. In order to do that, a theatre artist has to be very precise about what it means to do “political” work in the theatre. I believe all plays, like all actions, are political. If you are not presenting a story that challenges the status quo, it is implying that you are comfortable with the status quo. That isn’t inherently good or bad to do, but it isn’t a neutral act in the way that it is not neutral to stay home rather than join a protest when your government is using your tax dollars to invade another country.

It is the cultural context we live in that determines which plays and issues we view as politically charged, and cultural contexts are continuously shifting. For example, most people did not consider A Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill to be a “political” play when it opened in 1956. It is a story of a rich man who is so marred by his childhood poverty that he literally destroys his family. He hires a cheap doctor for his pregnant wife who gets her addicted to morphine, and has to be cajoled into paying for his dying son’s stay in a sanitarium. If several theatres across America chose to simultaneously produce A Long Day’s Journey into Night during the height of the recent health care debate, suddenly the same play might be dismissed as maudlin agitprop. It is the act of putting a play on within a specific cultural context that is politically potent, not the work of art in itself.

For the act of putting on a play to be politically potent, it must be dangerous to do so. Most people who attend theatres are probably not conflicted about questions like whether female circumcision is a very bad idea or if people should have to enough to eat. Therefore, putting on a play where horrifying things happen to good people does not necessarily make it politically challenging to produce that work, unless it deals with an issue than is so divisive that there exists the threat of serious repercussions for the people who are associated with that production. In some countries, theatre artists can be jailed or killed for sparking debate about divisive issues in their work. In places like America, theatre artists can be economically censored in the form of losing their jobs or funding for future projects. For people who have developed their identities as theatre artists and chosen to devote their lives to learning what can be learned from the art form, the threat of being denied the resources necessary to create new works can feel almost as chilling as the threat of being jailed.

That being said, when it comes to my own ideas about currently contentious issues like abortion or gay rights, I can’t imagine seeing a play that alters my viewpoint. So, why would I – as a playwright – assume that I had the power to change other people’s deeply held beliefs with my plays? What is the importance of theatre if one adheres to the idea that a play rarely has the ability to change people’s minds about the most divisive political issues of one’s time and place?

Theatre is not about teaching people what they do not know, but rather it is about awakening within them the truths that they already do. Theatre can remind us that the vast majority of people are not heroes or villains, but simply ordinary humans beings. They work, have their hearts broken, dream of owning a slightly bigger house than they can afford, get aggravated by their family members, and struggle valiantly to be admired by those they admire. In short, their lives, deaths, hopes, fears, and fantasies are not fundamentally different from one’s own.

What would it mean if there were more stories that sensitized audiences to the fact that there is an indefinable, yet recognizable human essence that unites us, both throughout the globe and across the ages? In a world that is divided into nations that wage wars on one another, it is theatre’s ability to humanize that makes it so politically potent. If some people – who possess all the nuanced human complexity and capacity for feeling that we all do - have fewer rights, it is always tied to the fact that others have vastly more resources. We who are complacent with this imbalance of power often stay that way, not because we are ignorant, but because we know full well that the imbalance is in our favor. That political idea is the simplest to grasp and the hardest to swallow. It’s much easier to tell ourselves stories, onstage and off, that reinforce our conceptions about our “differences.” At its best, though, the medium of theatre is designed to reveal how much we actually always remain inescapably the same.


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Betty Shamieh’s off-Broadway premieres are The Black Eyed (New York Theatre Workshop) and Roar (The New Group). Other productions include: Again and Against (Playhouse Theater, Stockholm), The Black Eyed (Theater Fournos, Athens), The Machine (Naked Angels), Chocolate in Heat (NYC Fringe Festival/The Tank), and Territories (European Union Capital of Culture Festival). She was recently named by UNESCO as a Young Artist for Intercultural Dialogue and her play, Free Radicals, will have its world premiere at Het Zuidelijk Toneel (Holland) in 2012.

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