I’ve been struggling with the connection between “politics” and “theatre” since the early days of my MFA directing curriculum. I (foolishly?) told my advisor that my approach to an upcoming scene assignment would be informed by feminist theory I’d been reading. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Just be careful not to let politics get in the way of the text.”
Two recent events brought me back to this formative moment. First, I was a guest on a local public radio program, “The State of Things,” invited there to talk about the intersection of “politics and theater.” Second, I read Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez’s HowlRound post, “Theater of War,” in which he argues that American theatre has failed to create “urgent and relevant theater” in the face of continuing military campaigns that fail to garner widespread attention. Drawing on Guillermo’s final statement, Polly Carl tweeted a question that brought the issue into sharp relief. She asked: “Should we make more urgent and politically relevant theater?”
While considering Polly’s query, I was struck by a question that is perhaps even more foundational: “What exactly is political in relationship to theater?” All too often, when theatre is invoked within a political context, the connotation is negative. When President Obama announced an executive order that would offer work permits to thousands of undocumented young people, it was derided as “playing politics,” When Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan testified before the Senate banking committee about his company’s billions of dollars in losses from risky trades, his appearance was trumpeted as “political theater.” In these equations, theatre is represented as the manifestation of all that is wrong with politics. Pundits and commentators invoke theatre as shorthand for falseness, superficiality, and manipulation.
Then there is the complex genre of political theatre. Included are plays that chronicle (often critique) specific elected officials and their actions or inactions, for example: a recent New York revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a 1960 study in electability in the new age of television; and in the UK, a revival of Michael Frayn’s 2003 exploration of the rise and fall of West German chancellor Willy Brandt, Democracy. Other pieces may be cast as “political” for representing individuals or setting action in locations around which tensions continually swirl. Take Food and Fadwa currently running at the Noor Theatre in NY. Set in the West Bank, the play focuses on a Palestinian woman, Fadwa, as she prepares for her sister’s wedding, while also dealing her aging father. Co-writer Lameece Issaq insists the play’s center surrounds changing familial relationships, yet there’s no escaping the fact that story about Palestinians in Palestine on an American stage can be read as a comment on political policy in the region.
Other examples of political theatre, like agit-prop or documentary plays, are more self-consciously provocative in both content and form. They strive to disrupt the status quo outside the theatre, encouraging direct intervention in political systems and frequently meet with counter-actions by officials. From productions of The Laramie Project’s continuing to battle censorship to Belarus Free Theatre artists who risk arrest with secret performances critical of a repressive regime, political theatre’s suppression illustrates how combustible, physically and emotionally unsettling, and transformative a shared physical space of experience can be even if it is a space where the terms of the experience are being constructed by theatre artists.
They strive to disrupt the status quo outside the theatre, encouraging direct intervention in political systems and frequently meet with counter-actions by officials.
This leads me to a final and perhaps new and old connection between theatre and politics, reaching back to the root term of “polis,” or body of citizens. At their best, community-based theatre and devised theatre recognize the democratic principles of embodied participation, dialogue, and consensus building essential in theater making. At one end of this spectrum we find documentary projects, where theater artists function as ethnographers, conducting interviews, finding and framing stories which are then returned, through performance, to their tellers with perhaps unknown or long buried connections laid bare to spur more or new conversations. Sometimes community members themselves become playwright-performers, seizing a powerful, political, public moment of voice and agency.
Similarly, devised work has the potential to operate as a microcosm of democratic participation within a community of theatre artists who have equal say in the shape, vision of a work, where compromise and consensus is part of the process of creation—not just a vision of the world portrayed on-stage. Often, this multi-vocal process changes the nature of the product; the theatre world actively debates the aesthetic and civic goals of devised non-narrative, post-dramatic work. When the stakes for off-stage action are high, the pressure for on-stage worlds to present a clear, neat, and recognizable message is also intense. Like the Occupy movement, which resists calls to have a unified leadership or adhere to a hierarchical organizational structure, companies that resist the “well-made” play are engaging in a kind of political resistance against theatrical vanguards.
Perhaps the most striking political theatre isn’t necessarily about theatre or politics in their conventional senses. I refer to the work Michael Rohd discusses in his article, “The New Work of Building Civic Practice.” In it, he argues for theatre artists and institutions to radically reconsider what tools and assets they might offer their wider communities to truly make arts organizations “central to the vitality of community life.” Nowhere in his post does Michael mention the word “politics.” However, I believe his call to consider collaborative, civic actions as a kind of theatrical “new work” is a profoundly political challenge. It requires that we rethink the way we seek (and are sought for) partnerships. It demands a long-range perspective for actions, with an eye firmly trained on sustainability and complexity rather than single-issue advocacy. It encourages us to let go of “the play” as the ultimate theatrical expression in need of public attention and funding, in favor of constructing “non arts-based” spaces of intersection where artists and non-arts partners can construct fruitful dialogues across political ideologies towards specific common goals. In this vision, playing politics is no longer about going through the motions in a superficial way, but instead becomes a creative path to collaborative action for the betterment of all.