Changing the Narrative on Gun Control

Is Theatre Up to the Task?

When Caridad Svich proposed a Gun Control Theatre Action in January, I was skeptical. At the time, I was preoccupied as a research volunteer to the March on Washington for Gun Control. For me, the massacre at Sandy Hook was the moment when art and theatre were rendered useless. No play could be written that would do justice to the outrage of schoolchildren gunned down in the name of what? Second amendment freedoms? A crazy guy’s right to own an AK-47?

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My question for her at the time boiled down to this: “Why bother? Whose mind do you think you are going to change by organizing readings of plays about gun control?” It seemed to me, quite bluntly, an exercise in self-congratulation, designed more to comfort the artist than to make any real difference in the national shouting match over gun rights.

Since then I’ve reconsidered; it is clear that we were working on two different kinds of theatre—a street theatre of protest and a theatre of the stage. And while I’m not sure how effective either was, the march itself received worldwide press and Gun Control Theatre Action has been presented multiple times around the world. Nine months later we are still waiting for the policy reforms that could have prevented the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, and I am not optimistic that we will see those reforms any time soon.

But my question persists—why bother?—and I posed that question to Jeff McMahon, performance artist and essayist who is associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.

“Part of my feeling about activism is it has to fit the context,” McMahon says. “Sometimes it’s better to write an essay than to write a monologue.”

McMahon has done both, with a long resume of published writings and solo works inspired by true events. He is compelled to the stage, but he acknowledges the inherent problem of reaching an audience that is not predisposed to support his point of view.

“How do you seduce an audience?” he asks. “How do you get people to open up and listen to something that might be changing their sensibility and their way of thinking about something before you start telling them what to think?”

So for us, I think, the ultimate question is how to draw lessons from the most effective protest movements—how to use theatre to change the narrative?

His answer lies in the art itself—the project has to work aesthetically if it is to move anyone—and he cites his experience with a multimedia solo performance piece Heel, which he created in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“Having just come from New York, I had survivor’s guilt,” he recalls, “so a colleague and I organized a symposium reflecting on the attacks and providing a format for creative responses.” Heel was presented as part of that action.

 “One of my colleagues who is quite conservative—a right-wing Christian—came to see it. Afterwards he said ‘I thought the performance was brilliant, the aesthetics incredible, but I hate the politics. But my son loved the whole thing.’”

And I said, “at least that brought you into the argument.”

“I was trying to get into the minds of the terrorists—the bombers,” McMahon explained. “And I think I did that, while also implicating myself and the way we [as Americans] play with violence.”

“My colleague’s take on the whole thing was very different, but because of the power of the performance itself, I think a door opened slightly.”

“There are other people that saw it that responded in ways I did not anticipate,” McMahon says. “Sometimes when you craft something well, for someone who will disagree with your politics, you have opened up some part of their sensibility that ultimately might change their politics.”

This point is made vividly clear in a recent TED Talk by Larry Bogad, a professor of political performance at UC Davis. His specialty is using theatrical values to make activism more effective.

The Civil Rights did exactly that, Bogad says, citing the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that became emblematic of racial injustice in the 1960s. African Americans, dressed as if for church, sat down and politely asked for a cup coffee. They not only were refused service, they were brutally harassed and hauled off to jail. But their dignity in the face of violence created in indelible image that helped to turn public sentiment and ultimately, transformed public policy.

“Many people do not realize how intensely rehearsed and prepared these actions were,” Bogad says. “They thought theatrically. They took turns pretending to be themselves and the racist mob. They thought in terms of costumes… wearing only their Sunday best. People were only allowed to participate if they signed a pledge to stick to the script—not to shout back,” he says.

It is an example of what Bogad calls “political Aikido,” in which the protestors take the superior force of their opponents and use it against them.  

Many people do not realize how intensely rehearsed and prepared these actions were. They thought theatrically. They took turns pretending to be themselves and the racist mob.

And this is what we are lacking right now in the gun control movement. The very phrase “gun control” works against those who seek a sensible policy, because it feeds into the fears of gun rights activists that the secret agenda is to eradicate all guns—not just to get military weapons out of civilian hands. So for us, I think, the ultimate question is how to draw lessons from the most effective protest movements—how to use theater to change the narrative? Where is the indelible image for us, if the image of terrified schoolchildren and their weeping parents is not enough?

While McMahon sees value in the collective artistic action, he also sees a need for a new approach. Somehow the conversation needs to change.

“If I were to do a theatre project on this subject,” he says, “I would have to go out and talk to people who come at this from a very different perspective.”

“Maybe what we need to do, instead of writing a bunch of plays about gun control, is think about using theatrical techniques to build more dialogue. Maybe more of us need to talk to hunters.”

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Thoughts from the curator

This series focuses on personal perspectives from a select group of practitioners on theatre and social change, the nature of artistic efficacy, and on past and ongoing gun control theatre actions. We welcome readers to reflect with us.

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"the outrage of schoolchildren gunned down in the name of what? Second amendment freedoms?"

As much as I liked liked "Radium Girls" I have to say that I'm really disappointed in the "group think" exhibited by theater people on this issue. As well as at their obvious sense of superiority over (and condescending attitude toward) those who feel that peaceful citizens should be able to possess guns to protect themselves from criminals.

"the fears of gun rights activists that the secret agenda is to eradicate all guns—not just to get military weapons out of civilian hands"

This seems rather disingenuous. Do you deny that for a great many people in the gun control movement the goal IS to effectively get rid of all handguns?

I think the bottom line is that gun control advocates don't fell that they "share in the responsibility" (to use the phrase of a another gun-control advocate's recent essay) when a person is killed (or raped) who wouldn't have been if he or she had been able to defend herself with a gun.

Thus gun rights advocates are actually more reasonable than gun control advocates because at least the former will admit that yes, bad people sometimes use guns to kill others -- whereas gun control advocates seem to refuse to admit that guns also protect a lot of people from death or serious injury.

Now, if you don't think the lives saved are worth the lives lost you're certainly entitled to your opinion... but you're NOT entitled to take some petite person's gun away so she is an easy target for rapists and murderers.

If gun control advocates just want to keep preaching to the converted, fine. But if you really want to help, write plays (or essays or do street theater) devoted to solving the socio-economic problems that cause some turn to violent crime. Sure, that's tougher than than simply passing laws to take guns away from peaceful citizens... but it is ultimately of much more value.

In the meantime, instead of venting your anger at peaceful people who have never harmed anybody, why don't you express outrage at, for instance, the mass shooter's mother who, even though she knew her son was mentally ill, PROVIDED HIS SON WITH GUNS AND REPEATEDLY TAUGHT HIM HOW TO SHOOT THEM!

And while your at it, why don't you express outrage that the powerful mind-altering drugs her son was given by the medical establishment probably made it MORE (not less) likely that he would commit a horrible crime? (Based on the fact that virtually all mass shooters have been on powerful anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs, which the industry now finally admits can actually increase suicidal thoughts in some youth. Is it really so hard to imagine that in some cases it also increases homicidal thoughts?)

The fact that the shooters father decided to get divorced and wash his hands of the shooter and his mother, rather than keep the shooter in line (or, if necessary, get him locked up)?

Direct your anger where it belongs (including at the father who washed his hands of the situation rather than deal with the hard decision as to whether his son needed to be in a locked ward) -- NOT at people who simply want to defend themselves from criminals.

EXCELLENT ARTICLE!!! Also, just watched the Ted X video. I am inspired... am now thinking about the staging of a protest... what we could do to ensure that our elected officials in the House of Representatives do the right thing regarding gun reform legislation when they get back from vacation. How do we get a majority to deliver a resounding "Yay," for HR-1565, the bill before the House that will close the gun show loophole and institute criminal background checks on all those seeking to purchase firearms. We don't want a repeat of what happened in the Senate....