Michael Rohd headshotThis week-long blog series on political ideologies in the theater grew out of Caleb Winebrenner's article responding to Daniel Jones' post. Each writer was invited to respond based upon the intersection of political ideology and art in their work.

I’m happy to have been invited into conversation with Caleb Winebrenner’s article, and through it, new colleagues and old friends. I have an overall question about dialogue and monologue that the article got me thinking about, but to be in a conversation with this article I must first note that:

  1. Augusto Boal was a friend and mentor of mine. I believe the idea that his body of work can mesh ideologically with a set of political beliefs that does not prioritize society’s responsibility to care for those in need is not an accurate read of his point of view. This doesn’t mean I think people who don’t share Boal’s values cannot or should not use his tools, but it’s worth stating that disjunction. I once heard Augusto in a lengthy conversation with someone who was using Theatre of the Oppressed work to help managers in corporate settings learn how to communicate better in order to get what they needed in negotiations with workers. He was delighted when his tools were used to bring owners and workers into authentic dialogue about worker treatment and the ethics of profit. He was more than dismissive when his approaches were used to devise tools so (and I paraphrase from memory here) bosses could help workers internalize systems or values that were counter to the needs and dignities of the workers themselves.
  2. I find the suggestion that crowdsourcing replace more traditional funding sources rather than expand the funding palette problematic due to access. Not all organizations and artists make work that speaks for or to constituencies that live fluently in online contexts. Kickstarter and indiegogo are great new platforms for supporting new work. But they exist in a particular kind of marketplace. So long as we are market-based, we need different kinds of markets. We need markets of ideas and of products that invite consumption. We also need markets of service and markets of principle, where different entities, government and otherwise, can find and support projects and individuals who may not have the standing, visibility, or tools to initially navigate commodity markets with success but who will make contributions to society that will enrich their own lives and the lives of others.

A lot of my theater work has focused on bringing ideologically diverse voices into rooms to creatively look for common ground and explore community conflict. I think politics and point of view are not just about content, but also about form and intention.

Caleb, there is one line in your essay that stands out to me every time I read it. In relation to Boal’s quote, “have the courage to be happy,” and in the context of your work with young men who have arrived in the US from across the border, you write,  “It has meant owning up to having come here illegally, and it has meant learning more and more English.”

 I want to talk about that choice of the words “owning up.” To me, it’s an important one.

You could have said “acknowledge.” You could have said “grapple with the fact.” But you use words that seem to, for my eyes as a reader, tell me what you think about the fact of how these young men arrived in this country. And therefore, in your practice, perhaps tell them what you think about how they arrived in this space with you. Which seems to point to a use of the space you are helping shape to in fact guide them in developing a particular read of their own life experience.

You are perhaps bringing your political point of view to bear on how they should see their own narrative.

I believe dialogue is an ideology. It’s a belief that in exchange we learn about each other, the world, and how to see and move through it, differently than if we subscribe to a system of art, of education, or of democracy, based in monologue. Different than education as the dissemination of information; than art as the presentation of curated content; than elections as salesmanship of persona rather than discourse of ideas. So choosing dialogue as a core intention in spaces where one leads activity is a political act. Therefore, I am political in my spaces. I am challenged by your political act in your space. And since your article is about your political point of view, and how it brings a different set of values, but a common goal in terms of process and intention, I challenge your foundation there. Because it seems from what I read in your description, we don’t have a different point of view on political issues when it comes to the use of theater as a tool for community development and individual growth—we may have quite different perspectives on what we believe theater is for.

I do not doubt the power of the work you are doing with these young men, nor the positive experience they are having, nor the meaningful relationship you have with them. But if you are encouraging the individuals you work with to frame their story in a way that is aligned with how you see their story fitting into social and systemic narratives—you arrived here illegally, so in our work together, we will focus on responsibility and liberty and choice—than you are engaged in a monological approach to making theater.

I think the surprise you experience when people learn of your use of pedagogically progressive frameworks aimed at raising critical consciousness may be less about your libertarian values in content, and more about a sense of tension between those values and the form and intention of the frameworks you are utilizing. To be reductive, it seems like you are using dialogue means for monologue ends.

If I am off in the specifics, but you hear in my gist a point worth taking up, I ask you to be forgiving of my incorrect presumptions and note some questions I’m interested in:

  • What is an artist’s responsibility when working in a room of people whose political perspectives are varied and even at odds with each other?
  • What is an artist’s responsibility when leading in a space with participants who are struggling to make a life in a system that doesn’t seem to value them?
  • Is it to challenge that system?
  • Is it to help them fit into that system?
  • Is it to guide/participate in an inquiry aimed at discovering this answer all together?
  • How does privilege and its intersection with a political point of view impact the tactics an artist needs to bring into spaces with diverse participants?
  • When working for change, what responsibility (if any) does an artist have to disclose their own core values in relation to intention as they lead processes with individuals who do not have previous experience with that artist?
  • What ways can we imagine for “unlikely allies” to work together to “stir citizens to action” not just as varied voices in the composition of a work of art, but as co-leaders even when they perhaps desire different results from the stirring?