Lately I have been struggling with a politically-induced writing slump of epic proportions that has made it difficult for me to decipher what is “lesson” and what is “life.” The problem isn’t that I have writer’s block—I’m currently making progress on a totally non-political full-length comedy! But my heart and soul really want to put all of my itchy politically frazzled nerves to work on something worthy of our current political state. It’s like they’re screaming for me to write a tremendously awesome and important “How do you solve a problem like America?”-type play, but those same frazzled nerves just can’t make sense of anything long enough to find the story.
So you could say that my desire for efficacy in light of our current administration’s horrifying policies is at war with my desire for entertainment (to take my mind off said horrifying policies), and the whole thing is bleeding into my creative work in complicated ways.
Which is why I’ve been putting some of this energy into other efforts.
I recently wrote an article for HowlRound about Radical Empathy, and the response was really encouraging. Contact with other artist-activists was made, which buoyed my spirit. I wanted to do more. I decided that I would pick up where the We’re Not Playing initiative I had created through Little Black Dress INK left off, and build a website where playwrights could “donate” socially- and politically-inspired plays to those wishing to employ a little creative resistance.
In other words, I might not know exactly how to turn down my own political panic long enough to put it onto paper, but this political paralysis has inspired me to create an online platform for the playwrights who are doing just that. It’s called the Protest Plays Project, and it’s an avenue for playwrights to put their plays to work in the Resistance.
I reached out to collaborators old and new, and the creative connection and shared intentionality was awesome! I decided to first focus on placing a call for plays already written via the New Play Exchange, essentially asking: “Does anyone have any social/political plays they want to make available to Resistors?” I got a tremendous response. It felt like a solid beginning.
Some of the pieces shared speak in broad terms about equality, or our endangered planet; some were written in direct response to Trump’s election, their frustration and horror all too palpable. All of these plays are socially relevant in a way that bridges the entertainment vs. efficacy gap. But I wonder, as I continue to give shape to the Protest Plays Project, how can we as artists organize ourselves even better in order to add energy and creative support to the Resistance? Can playwrights and theatre artists achieve efficacy through focused agitprop and activist theatre? Will we be able to sustain this passion and momentum long enough to create the change we so badly want to see?
“The nightmare scenario is two years from now it’s, ‘Hey, remember when we all did activism?’”—Ezra Levin, one Indivisible’s co-founders in a NY Times April 9th article.
It’s my belief that we can and we must. Theatre has always been political and its practitioners have always been outliers. While audiences want very much to be entertained, they also go to the theatre to be inspired, enlightened, and activated. In times such as these, audiences will indeed need politically inspired work to help them make sense of this world, and so while artist-activists will face opposition and fatigue, we will not give up. We will not be afraid to engage in political theatre. We will continue to feed our audiences—even if it means taking our words to the streets, and bringing the theatre to them.
One of the biggest challenges I face with Protest Plays is geography. The site operates online, but I’ve recently relocated to a very small, conservative Southern town. One of my hopes for the Protest Plays Project is to create opportunities for outreach and empathy building as well as protest, but I am not yet personally connected enough in my new community to organize events locally. For now, I remain reliant on other like-minded, but more actionable forces on the ground in other cities. The internet is my lifeline to other artist-activists, and it probably will continue to be so for a while.
The second challenge I needed to address was the issue of access. While the New Play Exchange is a tremendous service to playwrights and theatremakers engaged in new play development, it may not be a practical tool for every Creative Resistor. But would playwrights’ hesitancies to share work online be something we could address in order to build a nexus beneficial to both the author and the activist? With digital piracy very much a threat to artists, is asking playwrights to share their work on our site asking too much?
In order to answer this, I had to first ask myself what my reservations as a playwright would be, and I came to the following conclusion: There are plays in my catalogue that I very much want to “protect” against unlicensed productions. These are my full-length plays and a few shorter, less efficacious pieces. Then there are the short plays that I’ve written in order to say something political. Their efficacy outweighs my desire for them to be used as entertainment, and therefore they need less protection. These are my “work” plays, because I want them to go to work. They do no good sitting on my laptop waiting for the right 10-minute play festival to ask me for them. When I picture these pieces, I see the “We Can Do It” poster and I am reminded of the tremendous access the Federal Theatre Project provided to artists and communities across the country.I’m not worried about who has online access to them, because I want these plays to get out there and do their job.
With that in mind, Protest Plays will move forward initiating calls for plays to be shared on our site. My hope is that we will be able to work with playwrights to identify real-time issues they feel inspired to write about. If we can build a network of artist-activists implementing theatre as protest, we will indeed be supporting Resistance efforts and offering access via the powerful tools that theatre has to offer: empathy, metaphor, symbolism, community, and catharsis.
Our most recent effort has been to support the March for Science. A number of playwrights have offered their science-based plays for royalty-free readings the weekend of the march, April 22, 2017. Funding for both the arts and sciences are on Trump’s chopping block, therefore it seems obvious to me that we ought to be supporting one another now more than ever. If this is the first you’re hearing about our Speak Out for Science efforts, there’s still time to create an event in your community. Protest theatre doesn’t have to be neat and tidy, so go ahead and guerrilla theatre it up!
As we move forward, I will continue to address our biggest challenge: spreading the word. The Protest Plays Project is a brand-new initiative. Getting people involved in what we’re trying to do takes time and dedication. The number of social media posts and direct emails we’ve sent out so far is small in comparison to what we need to be doing, but the response is always encouraging and inspiring. I continue to reach out to creative collaborators who believe in the power of theatre to cultivate change, and in so doing, hope that the work we’re doing is not only putting frazzled creative nerves to good purpose, but effecting measurable change in the communities where our words go to work. We’re going to need compassion, empathy, innovation, and each other if we are to have any hope of getting through this mess with our communities—and our sanity—in tact.