Why do we make theatre?
Whether the impulse to ask this question is economically, philosophically, politically, or socially inspired, it’s a given that every artist will at some point wrestle with this query. And, just like the artists doing the asking, answers are often highly individualistic.
Recently, however, theatremakers in the United States are asking this question in droves, as they try to figure out their roles and responsibilities in today’s current political climate. The answers remain varied, but a common thread can be seen: theatre as activism is one of the only weapons they feel they have to challenge the rising tide of partisanship dividing the nation.
In 2016, a number of theatre institutions—both big and small—began asking how they could amplify civic engagement. It’s time for all of us to answer this question together.
Non-profit theatres have a responsibility to carry out the public services outlined in their mission statements. As we know, it’s the “public service” part of an institution’s purpose that allows them the non-profit status in the first place. Many non-profit theatres have been working far too long under the philosophy that live theatre as entertainment is itself a public service. We see this time and again with theatres whose outreach ends at the theatre’s doors.
I firmly believe that there is incredible value in seeing live theatre, or participating in it through educational opportunities. But is selling tickets and offering theatre classes really a public service? Or is it just a way to make theatremaking feasible in our increasingly expensive and competitive entertainment culture?
The act of exploring the human condition is inherently political. It’s time for theatres to embrace, rather than shy away from, this fact and to find ways to better serve their own fractured communities instead of merely catering to the specific community that already support them.
This does not mean that every theatre needs to start producing seasons rife with political theatre. Instead, I propose that there is one very simple, non-partisan ways theatres can up their public service game, without alienating audiences or jeopardizing their mission statements: Get Out the Vote initiatives.
Only 36.4 percent of the voting-eligible population turned up for the 2014 midterm elections. In 2016, eligible voter turnout was just over 58 percent percent. In both instances, an embarrassingly low number of voters have been determining the fate of the nation. We are now in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, and communities face a number of obstacles to increased voter turnout.
A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice reports a 33 percent increase in voters’ names being purged from registration rolls between 2014 and 2016. That’s nearly 4 million more voters purged from the rolls than the previous year’s election.
“This fall, millions of Americans may head to the polls only to find their names aren’t on voter registration lists anymore. These voters may have to cast provisional ballots. Or worse, they could be turned away,” Myrna Pérez writes for the New York Times.
“We performed outdoors at iconic St. Louis landmarks including Vintage Vinyl and Left Bank Books,” explains Joan Appell Lipkin, Uppity’s Producing Artistic Director. “We also performed at St. Louis Black Pride.”
The company is reviving the project this fall, in lead up to the midterm elections. Uppity has commissioned dance companies and choreographers in the St. Louis area, along with spoken word artists and poets. Together, they create and perform short pieces about the history and significance of voting, especially for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and other disenfranchised populations. They will be partnering with the St. Louis Voter Registration Project and plan to add a citywide flash mob.
Just Act, a Philadelphia theatre-based catalyst for relational healing, change, and activism, has launched a similarly collaborative initiative called “Just Act, Go Vote!”
Just Act’s project will assemble an ensemble of young theatre activists who will devise a performance addressing barriers to voting, which they will then tour all over Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. They are partnering with POWER’s People Movement Voter Engagement Program, as well as other Get Out the Vote organizations in their community. The group’s motto is “Be a Just Actor. Activate. Collaborate. Transform.”
Both Uppity and Just Act’s impressive collaborative efforts are to be commended, and set a shining example of what’s possible when theatre companies engage with other organizations working on similar issues of focus.
Playwrights Horizons is also reviving a 2016 initiative this fall: #PlayOurPart, a nonpartisan effort to increase voter turnout. That year, Playwrights Horizons registered seventy-five voters at a table in their lobby, and inspired numerous additional theatres to do the same. Now that midterms are approaching, Playwrights Horizon has decided to renew the program, and is challenging other theatres to join them.
Participating in #PlayOurPart is easy—all that is required is that theatres offer pre-show voter registration tables in their lobbies. By using the hashtag #PlayOurPart, theatres can connect with/challenge other theatres to participate and add to the collaborative energy this multi-theatre effort is building on Twitter.
Playwrights Horizons is a large organization, and they’re putting their resources to good use in this effort.
“Our lobby is open six days a week,” explained Playwrights Horizons Literary Director, Sarah Lunnie. “We have hundreds of people coming through our lobby. It felt very meaningful to us that we were able to offer (voter registration) every evening.”
Not everyone will have ready volunteers available to operate a table at every show, but that doesn’t have to be a roadblock. As is mentioned on the Playwrights’ Horizons website, a voter registration drive is a great opportunity to build community. If you don’t have the staff or volunteers, you can connect with existing nonpartisan voter registration groups in your area, open your space to these groups, and work with them to train the volunteers on your team who want to help.
Whatever your registration drive looks like, the most important part is to make sure your volunteers have the training necessary to inform guests of guidelines, deadlines, and other voting requirements in your community.
In 2016, several of the Playwrights Horizons patrons were surprised by information being provided at the voter registration table, especially about voter ID requirements. Lunnie explained that, “Data that people aren’t familiar with or aren’t thinking about could become roadblocks. Having that data for them helps.”
Playwrights Horizons will begin offering voter registration in their lobby in August, but another theatre currently engaged in a voter drive is HUB Theatre Company of Boston.
Community engagement is nothing new for HUB, as they commit to Pay What You Can performances and community service with every show. Their current production, Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, was the perfect choice for a voter registration drive.
According to Lauren Elias, HUB’s Producing Artistic Director, the play’s message is, “You can only lose if you don’t play. Government requires participation. And we are lucky enough to live in a country where we can participate.”
HUB is also making absentee ballots available to their patrons, since primaries in Boston take place the day after Labor Day.
When you consider that theatre is, by its nature, a collaborative art form, connecting and working with other non-profit groups makes sense. It’s also an easy step to take in improving your company’s commitment to public service.
According to Elias, getting voter registration information was a simple process. “As far as producing goes,” Elias explained, “this was one of the easier things I had to do.”
Ease seems to be a consistent concern with organizers—as the director of Protest Plays Project, I can personally attest to the importance of keeping steps for engagement as simple as possible. Everything we do is dependant on collaboration, which means we strive to make all of our projects as accessible and easy to implement as possible, whether you’re a giant theatre company or an independent theatremaker.
Our #TheatreActionVote initiative aims to increase voter registration and voter turnout. Like #PlayOurPart, the initiative is simple to employ and is open to theatres and theatremakers everywhere—it can also be employed in tandem with other civic efforts and is designed to work with the resources you have available.
#TheatreActionVOTE began with a call for playwrights to draft short, nonpartisan plays or monologues encouraging people to vote. The plays were then peer-reviewed by the participating playwrights, yielding a collection of fifteen royalty-free pieces ranging from one to three minutes. The plays vary in tone, mood, and genre, but they all have one thing in common—they motivate the audience to make their own voices heard this November.
And for theatremakers who aren’t affiliated with theatres or without regular spaces, Bad and Nasty has issued their own Get out the Vote Challenge:
A rally that ends with a march to the polls? A post-vote party? Skits around town to remind people it's election day? What kind of actions and performances can we do to make people feel inspired to get to the mid-term voting booth? Traditional canvassing only motivates a small percentage of the electorate. You all know how to make a spectacle. Doesn't have to be complicated. We have many primaries to practice on to prepare for the big day. Who's in?
This call for "artivists” to engage in decentralized performance actions on Election Day could be answered by absolutely anyone.
In times of political upheaval, it’s easy for us to feel powerless. What is theatre’s job if not to remind one another of our shared humanity and the power we have to right this listing ship?
Just 36.4 percent of the populace should not be shouldering the burden of determining any nation’s future, much less a democratic republic like ours. Theatres currently have an opportunity to engage volunteers and patrons in civic action through the simplest means: by reminding them that they have a voice and a vital role to play in the biggest show of all. We should not let this opportunity pass us by.