On November 9, 2016, we despaired. The republic that our parents had worked to build and defend seemed in existential danger. The institutions designed to protect us seemed hollow. All that we’d worked to achieve seemed fruitless.
Our union, Actors’ Equity Association, and the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers had just agreed to a two-week extension of our contract after five months of tense negotiations. Two years prior, half a dozen of us, all Equity actors who worked Off-Broadway regularly, had met secretly in a Brooklyn apartment to discuss what our union’s contract with the League would look like if it were perfect. Our wages had not kept up with the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country, and we were driven to debt, to bankruptcy, to leaving Off-Broadway or the profession altogether. The union heard about our meetings, reached out and took up our cause—that we should be able to pay our bills while we’re working. Two of us found ourselves on the negotiating team, and, as talks with our employers began, many more of us lined Equity’s Council Room to observe and show our support. A central committee of two dozen of us formed, #FairWageOnstage, internally organizing more than 1,700 Equity actors and stage managers, 1,100 of whom signed a petition to management—one among many actions that included a press campaign and video testimonials, 200 of us speaking openly on social media about our love for the work in these institutions, and the struggles and humiliations of living for years on substandard wages. The two sides engaged a federal mediator and agreed to the extension, and two days later…election night.
We’d worked with our employers for decades. Like us, those on the other side of the table were gay and straight, many of them women, a few of them parents. Some had worn Hillary buttons in the room. Though we were on opposite sides, we shared values and a common belief in liberal democracy and in the theatre: all of us had chosen to make lives in the field, and none of us had done it to get rich. On November 9 we wondered how we could ask them for anything. And then we realized, in addition to the fights we anticipate as citizens to protect our civil rights, we likely will have fights ahead of us as artists and as workers, too, and to fight those battles, we would need to be well fed. And theatre would be one of our weapons.
Our resolve strengthened, we rejoined the fight: without resorting to a strike, thanks to leverage provided by our social media and press campaigns, our union and our employers reached an agreement that corrected decades of stagnant wages for actors and stage managers Off-Broadway, seeing gains of 14 percent from our commercial employers and between 32 percent and 81 percent in nonprofit institutions. So we achieved a victory when we sorely needed one, armed with the weapons of collective bargaining and free speech. Our historic win came at a crucial juncture in history, preparing us to better serve our most powerful weapon: the theatre.
Theatre as a Weapon: Against Soviet Russia, Communist Czechoslovakia, and the Dictatorship of Belarus
You could say, since theatre is available only to the few who can afford the high ticket prices, it’s at best a “wet firecracker.” But we’ve long been captivated by stories of the meaning theatre held for those living in oppressive regimes. For the oppressed, theatre is a bomb that, both in what it can explore and by its nature alone, can blow the lid off authoritarianism.
Stalin knew the threat theatre posed to his regime and stripped dissident artists from public life and of life itself. In 1928 Nikolaï Erdman wrote The Suicide, a satire of Soviet Russia, whose unemployed, proletarian hero threatens to kill himself, finds his ego boosted when several counterrevolutionaries vie to make him die as a martyr for their various causes, and then actually attempts his own self-destruction in an act of defiance against the Kremlin. Stalin’s censors shut it down at the dress rehearsal before it ever saw an audience. Erdman got drunk at a party soon after and made jokes about the dictator, an informant reported him, and Stalin sentenced him to hard labor in Siberia; Erdman could only get work thereafter writing screenplays for children’s movies. And Stalin had director Vsovolod Meyerhold shot during the purges a decade later. Stalin killed theatre artists who were critical of him, or hid their talents and eroded their will.
Fifty years later, director Yuri Lyubimov tried to stage The Suicide at his Taganka Theater, but Soviet authorities stopped him in rehearsal. He had already emerged in Brezhnev’s Russia as a sly critic of the regime, taking implicit shots at the authorities. They allowed him to adapt Mikhail Bulgakhov’s Stalin-era satire The Master and the Margarita while the novel was still banned—Pravda panned the production, because he set it not in Stalin’s Moscow but the present day—but when he staged it again in London and openly criticized the Soviet Union in the press, they revoked his citizenship. I’d seen his work at Arena Stage in Washington during his exile, where his adaptation of Crime and Punishment ended with quoting a Soviet high school student’s thesis paper: “Raskolnikov’s only crime was getting caught.” Lyubimov said in an interview with Leonardo Shapiro in BOMB 34, Winter 1991, that “the idea came about because 90 percent of the school children who study this novel in the Soviet schools write in their compositions and exams that Raskolnikov is a revolutionary, a positive figure, and that it was capitalism that led him to do what he did, all of which is, of course, false, vulgar ‘socialization.’”
Meanwhile, during his exile, Lyubimov’s radical reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters proved so popular that it remained in Taganka’s repertory years after he created it, speaking, according to Birgit Beumers in “Yuri Lyubimov at the Tanganka Theatre,” Contemporary Theatre Studies, vol. 21, to the people about whom he made it, his fellow Muscovites. A wall of mirrors alongside the audience confronted them with their own reflection. At the start of the show, the wall opened to reveal their own stagnant Moscow itself—darkness, snow, barren trees, a military band playing a march, the silhouettes of Soviet apartment blocks in the distance.
Whenever the sisters longed for their future in Moscow, Marvin Carlson, in his book 10,000 Nights: Highlights from 50 Years of Theatregoing, forthcoming from University of Michigan, describes them flinging themselves against the mirrored wall like birds trapped by a window—toward the actual Moscow just beyond. At the end, the company bowed and gestured toward the audience’s reflection, the mirrored wall opened, and the audience went back out into the production’s true backdrop, Soviet Moscow, not into the future the sisters hope for, but their own present, a present brought to them by their complacent acceptance of the regime. Carlson recalls Andrei’s line, devastating in context, “You won’t even notice Moscow when you live there.” Lyubimov’s Three Sisters premiered in 1980; the Soviet Union fell less than a decade later.
When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, dissident playwright Pavel Kohout and actress Vlasta Chromostová, banned from state theatres, formed the Apartment Theatre, gathering in living rooms to perform his adaptation Play Makbeth. The Czechs had long embraced Shakespeare as a national poet, according to performance studies professor Hana Worthen in “Within and Beyond: Pavel Kohout’s Play Makbeth and its Audiences,” GRAMMA: Journal of Theory and Criticism 15 (2007), with Macbeth the most frequently translated play in a country subject to 300 years of occupiers; it fell into the hands of different forces applying it to their own political uses, either by those galvanizing the resistance against the Nazis, or communists who praised it as an example “to those who would live at the expense of society by setting themselves against or above it.” The 1960s saw a thaw between East and West in Czech culture and in their Shakespeare: Peter Brook staged his Beckettian King Lear in Prague, where Jan Kott gave a lecture on Lear as an “ironic, clownish morality play.” But when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, they cut the Czechs and their theatre off from the rest of the world, bringing “normalization”—censorship of any cultural expression that didn’t impose communist ideology.
With all aspects of society politicized, Kohout’s version for the Apartment Theatre was straightforward and streamlined. The Macbeths’ ghastly domestic lives took center stage in a domestic setting; three actors played all the other roles, describing the battle scenes with banned Czech folksongs. In Chromostová’s Prague apartment, away from the official proscenium stages, Worthen observes, Kohout and his company recreated what was most democratic about an Elizabethan playhouse, a room where closely packed actors and audience collaborated to create an imagined reality to consider the nature of living. A performance was filmed despite the building’s fuses shorting out, and the film was smuggled to London and telecast in Austria.
Raids on the Apartment Theatre came more frequently, but so did visitors from abroad. During a performance Chromostová described in her memoir, her husband Standa stood sentry by the door to her flat and heard a noise in the hall; looking through the peephole, he saw armed police trudging up the stairs. Standa thrust his head out the door and stopped them with a whisper—“We’re doing a show! It’s Shakespeare!”—and warned them that the Swedish ambassador was in the audience. Standa would only admit the lieutenant, making the others wait outside, further insisting the officer remove his shoes, then led him into the kitchen. When the officer claimed he was responding to complaints of an orgy, Standa tut-tutted, “It’s culture,” and engaged him in conversation until the performance ended. Worthen found the officer’s report about that performance of “MAGBETH,” in which he wrote that Chromostová, who was unaware of the intruder, should have won “a golden Oscar.” The shared imaginings of artist and public in a private space intimidated the State, whose enforcer mocked and revered the actress: Chromostová defiantly just “did the play,” politically resisting by resisting the political.
Belarus Free Theatre’s Zone of Silence describes the region of Belarus contaminated by the Chernobyl meltdown in neighboring Russia, and starts with an actor lighting an actual firecracker he improvises from a shoelace. Belarus is ruled by Europe’s lone dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, and Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin started the company in 2005 to challenge his oppression. Kaliada said last August in an interview for the Journey’s Festival, “We didn’t have a physical space, but we had an idea: to create a theatre where you could say what you think and make art out of that. We didn’t exist for the authorities of our country but existed for the people of our country and for the outside world.” She lays out a fourfold mission statement that incorporates the education of youth to change society through art; the redemption of blacklisted artists; the creation of a performance space where audiences think honestly about their conditions; and “Lastly, and above all, to defend human rights—at all costs.”
Despite brutal harassment from the KGB—Lukashenko so loves his Soviet forebears, he kept the name for his secret police—Belarus Free Theatre reached out to their audience by text and performed their shows in apartments, garages, and forests. Kaliada said in an interview last March with Georgia Hussey for Index: The Voice of Free Expression, “When your friends are kidnapped, killed, thrown in jail, tortured, there is no time to stand on the sidelines to observe.” Unlike Chromostová, who defiantly did art for art’s sake, she feels she doesn’t “have the luxury to be apolitical.” I saw them at LaMama in New York City in 2011, performing Zone of Silence, and vividly remember their depiction of the Belarusian orphan Vika Moroz, whom an Italian couple had entertained for a summer, but refused to send back to her orphanage; they claimed she’d been abused, and was suicidal at news of her return to Belarus. Lukashenko described it as a “deliberate kidnapping” and all foreign adoptions as “human trafficking,” and waged a diplomatic battle over the girl in the press and the Italian courts, until the police found the girl hidden by her would-be adopters and forced her repatriation. Four actors read the actual stories from newspapers, them rolled them up and used them to make a puppet of Vika, breathing life into her with skill and empathy, following her to her suicide, as she threw herself from a window. Other parts of the show threw light on marginalized Belarusians harassed by the state, those of mixed race, the mentally ill, and transgender people, and on numbers that told the story of oppression.
Lukashenko threatened the company with imprisonment if they returned, so they’re now headquartered at the Young Vic in London, with a company of dissident performers remaining underground in Minsk, whom they direct by Skype. In a 2015 interview with Mark Brown in The Guardian, Kaliada, proud that their audience swells by almost half each time with newcomers—all of whom are advised to bring their passports with them to a performance, since, if they’re captured, their papers may make their detentions shorter—said “Belarusian audiences are the bravest in the world.”
A Light in Darkness
On the eve of the American inauguration, at dusk, we lit lights with hundreds of other New Yorkers outside the Public Theater as part the Ghostlight Project, along with thousands of Americans outside other theatres around the country, to affirm that the theatre is a sanctuary where all are welcome, a light in a time of darkness. We were encouraged to “Be a light.” An autocrat can use his bully pulpit to threaten the artist, to starve her by proposing funding be cut from her institutions, and by weakening her union. But we and our employers can fight back, and must. We want to join with our employers to form a united front against oppression, to be a light in the darkness.
To shine more brightly, we must be able to live without stress about how to pay our rent, put groceries on the table, and meet our basic expenses. We urge our brothers and sisters to stand up for their right to collectively bargain for better wages across the country while they can, to stand with their union: a union that has guaranteed you a safe workplace, fights for decent wages, and will organize you to combat attacks on middle-class workers. Feel proud to make art for the sake of art, and indulge that impulse; feel proud to make art that’s political, and indulge that impulse. Both impulses are valid. All expression is essential.
Following the election, I wept at Universes’ Party People at The Public, moved by the idealism of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and their destruction by the FBI’s COINTELPRO; I saw Belarus Free Theatre’s Time of Women in the Under the Radar Festival, where three women, former prisoners from Minsk, reminisce about their detention and interrogation by the KGB and in an instant find themselves back in jail again, in a space where the boundaries between the joys of present freedom and the trauma of past imprisonment are permeable; and with “alternative facts” suddenly in the public discourse, I saw David Ives’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Liar at Classic Stage Company, losing myself for an hour until intermission, when I turned on my phone and read a friend’s Facebook post on the immigration ban: “I’m doing what any New Yorker whose family was affected by the Holocaust would do right now: I’m going to fucking protest at JFK”; and then I went back in, the nation shifting beneath my feet, and the penultimate couplet of this confection seized my heart:
But think, before you hit the parking booth,
How this was all a lie—and yet the truth.
One hundred days into the Trump era, we’re bolstered by the spirit of resistance, by the workings of the courts to protect our rights, and yet it still feels our 240 years of liberal democracy may just have been a season, a spring. The tanks may yet come rolling in. If they do, and even now, our audiences can gather together and hear comfort, strength, and truth from our living voices.