The Politics of Rebuilding Theatrical and Civic Communities: Global Autocracy, Brexit, and Racism
verity healey: You had all these experiences with political theatremakers of color early in your career, which is interesting as a lot of theatre makers I know have historically experienced a snobby attitude to political theatre from their university peers. Why do you do political theatre?
Javaad Alipoor: Well, theatre has a natural way of allowing you to do political stuff in a way that isn’t didactic. There’s a ton of didactic political theatre, but there’s something potent about audience complicity, a form of narrative, and the nature of artifice. If the thing you’re talking about and the way you’re talking about it sit at a funny angle, you can write and produce political theatre without it being didactic.
So my general political view as a theatremaker has become much more about being a part of a resistance, rather than thinking that I am an insurgent and that history is on my side.
And I think it’s quite fashionable to be political now, actually, although people chop that up in different ways. I got into theatre in the final years of the Gordon Brown administration, and there was something in the air in Bradford. Bradford’s got this weird theatre history from the sixties onwards, and Theatre in the Mill came out of Bradford’s engineering university. Out of that milieu came several agitprop companies and, according to Bradford legend, the Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company. Bradford has these flowerings up, and it was quite a special time that Madani Younis built up with Freedom Studios.
verity: How do you see your role as a theatremaker changing, especially since Brexit?
Javaad: My political views have changed since Brexit and over the last few years. If you go back ten years, I would have said that the American empire was crumbling, that European social forums were showing something really interesting, and that the Eurocentric parties were moving to the right and leaving a space to the left where something exciting could come up. I wasn’t a cookie-cutter Marxist, but I believed in a revolutionary politics in which the movement to abolish the present order of things was in the offing. I believed the people to deliver this change would be working-class people in the Global North and Global South. But I think that the wind is blowing in the other direction.
So my general political view as a theatremaker has become much more about being a part of a resistance, rather than thinking that I am an insurgent and that history is on my side. I think that means kicking against easy answers, standing against the degradation of the general level of public thought, resisting the attacks of the insurgent right on both post-war human rights and the social gains of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Finally, I think it means calling out the way the liberal establishment is all too willing to crumble and give ground to majoritarian, reactionary ideas and politics.
Javaad: I worry that there isn’t a big response coming! When the discussions were happening about how the arts were going to be supported during COVID, a lot of who we would think of as very powerful people in theatre had absolutely no way into the conversation. When those deals came—and when we knew that freelancers missed out in our own backyard—there was a huge reticence about anyone calling any of that stuff out.
verity: Is there going to be that challenge, at some point, about theatremakers getting funding and then having to watch what they say?
Javaad: I think this relates to your question about what can theatre do and whether there is going to be a theatre response. If you’ve ever been to a dictatorship, you understand the levels of humiliation and degradation and brutality of everyday life. I think if you are a political person—and if you are, like me, connected to one of those places by background—you feel a sense of responsibility. You see the everyday bravery of people against that brutality.
One of things I am most proud about with Rich Kids: A History of the Shopping Malls in Tehran is the reception it got in some of the Iranian theatre magazines. It’s a show that uses a fictional Instagram feed to build on the true story of the deaths of a young couple who were connected to some of the most powerful pro-regime families. It’s about their rich consumerist life and their feelings of alienation caused by the contradiction between anti-Western Islamic rhetoric and the huge privilege and wealth they grew up with. In the show, we effectively set up a sort of structured series of theatrical metaphors that act as questions to think about the nature of consumerism, the tragedy of revolutions that eat their children, and the challenge of thinking of as yourself as part of a historical moment. At its heart, it is a satire about how the children of the elite in supposedly “anti-Western” countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, or China live. Critics in Iran said, “We can’t print the kinds of things that Javaad alleges the children of our dictators get up to, but you all know what we are talking about.” That meant so much. We do have more freedom here in the United Kingdom than in other places, so we need to use it.
I do think that there is a problem with curatorial or artistic independence being challenged by a government that’s fighting a right-wing culture war. One of the iconic moments of the British iteration of Black Lives Matter was the forcible removal of the statue of famous slave trader Edward Colston by members of the public. In the aftermath, The Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport issued a warning to museums and galleries that they would withdraw funding from organizations that made the decision to remove work from display on grounds of “politics or activism.” If the government polices the border between politics and curation or art, then it is taking on a curatorial, artistic, and editorial role. To the extent that this was a decision that came in a letter signed by the government minister, it erodes the arm’s length principle of state support for culture—a principle which, amongst other things, is supposed to guard against culture being used as a government mouthpiece. The right have been winning the culture war for ten years; it might help if the rest of us, who are certainly in the majority in the United Kingdom, actually fought back.
verity: How, as a theatremaker, do you balance this sense of hopelessness with positive, constructive dialogue?
Javaad: It’s about the disjunction in a show between what the artist is talking about and how… In The Believers Are But Brothers, we use a live WhatsApp group to share some of the research and tell the story of the young men who are being “radicalized” through social media. The world of the play starts to bleed out into the WhatsApp group, and what seemed like a neutral method of communication becomes a sort of immersion into the world of the story. On one level, it’s about showing the complicity of us all in the digital-political processes that are eroding the world. But the idea isn’t that if someone uses the internet, they are as bad as someone in the alt-right or ISIS, but rather that they are an active part of what made it this way. I try to play with how we are already complicit with and implicated in these things that appear as if they are outside us. What interests me is how people are making meanings out of things and how others make meaning differently than us.
Contemporary culture— particularly the internet—connects two things that really matter: the local and the international. I think our job as theatre artists, especially if we are working internationally, is to find a way to sit between these two spaces and connect the local to the international.
verity: We live in a capitalist society that encourages individualism, and you’ve said that countries are increasingly being atomized. How can theatre rebuild communities?
Javaad: We are living through a moment when national conversations seem to circle impotently around the same deadlocks. At the same time, contemporary culture— particularly the internet—connects two things that really matter: the local and the international. I think our job as theatre artists, especially if we are working internationally, is to find a way to sit between these two spaces and connect the local to the international.
Theatre is literally a proxemic kind of art. It’s about how you place things in space, amongst other things, and so you try to find a way of placing audiences in the space between the global and the local. In Rich Kids, I told them I was going to Instagram them during the show. Because there are so many challenges around arranging people in a space, I try to use the machine of theatre itself to ask how many metaphors can I set up and make hang together.
In a way all the most pressing questions we face have that proxemic angle to them. There’s the COVID crisis, the climate crisis. So what does that mean for responsibility in terms of how international travel and work should be? The infrastructure of the arts in the Global South is more ropey than in the Global North, and it’s much harder to sustain a career there. Because the Global North has contributed the most to climate change, it seems very fair to say that if people are flying to other people’s cities, the Global North should be bringing in work from Brazil, Nigeria, etc. a damn sight more than we take work there.
Javaad: It’s a response to Rachid Taha, the French Algerian punk/raï/rebel/hip hop genius. He tells this amazing story about his version of the song “Rock The Casbah,” which he calls “Rock El Casbah” and makes into an absolute Rai banger. He liked to claim in interviews that he explained what the song should sound like to Joe Strummer when he met him as a kid. So it wasn’t a cover, but the real original. I have no idea whether that’s true or not—I imagine it’s not literally so.
But it also comes from not having trained in traditional theatre. My journey was driven by ideas and then learning about form in order to make those ideas happen. If I speak about who I think the most inspirational artists are for me internationally, only one or two of those people would be theatremakers. The most interesting people are those who are sitting between different disciplines. As we come out of COVID, one of the questions is what we are inviting people back to. Do I think theatre has an audience for important contemporary political theatre at scale? Of course. Do I think that necessarily means bringing people back to those old spaces? Not at all.
Surely our job as artists, artistic directors, and so on is to make a practical case, through our work, for what art does in and of itself that nothing else can.
Javaad: I sometimes ask younger artists what they do politically that isn’t the work they make. That is an important question because it’ll make your art better if you don’t need to say everything you’ve got to say in one show. The relationship between politics and art is a complicated one. Art does sometimes change the world, maybe on the surface, but it does it in really weird ways. In the Iranian revolution in 1979, theatre directors tested the Shah’s rollback on the kind of dictatorship he was having by putting on Brecht in Persian at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. There were two nights of readings and poems and thousands of people turned up. The SAVAK secret police stood outside waiting to be told they could go and crack heads. The revolution came from a lot of places, but one of the things that radicalized the students was this weird poetry night.
verity: There is that thought that the one thing that art can do is change something in the future, but actually we might not know what that change is. I used to agree with this, but recently I’ve started thinking it’s a bit of a cop-out.
Javaad: I agree. I meet great, successful artists, but I hardly meet anyone who has the confidence to tell me why art is a good and necessary thing. Everyone from the biggest organizations down will talk up the community benefit of what it is they do, whether there is some community benefit or not. I can see why it helps to place their work right at the center of everyday life, but there also has to be some way of making a case about art itself. Surely our job as artists, artistic directors, and so on is to make a practical case, through our work, for what art does in and of itself that nothing else can.
verity: To conclude our interview, can you discuss your future projects?
Javaad: There’s a strand of work which will result in a new interdisciplinary digital theatre show which we are calling Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World. It’s about false universalism in the big international conversations about post-colonial theory. For example, when we demonstrate against racism in the United Kingdom, we think we are the same as those doing it in country X, but actually there are brutal distinctions between the global elite—some members of whom in the Global North might think of themselves as middle class—and everyone else. It’s also about how we talk about experiences. For example, there is no word to describe what it means to have been on the receiving end of colonialism and imperialism. But I’m also really interested in how progressives who flee their countries during revolutions end up knowing very little about what’s happening to the underclasses there too. Things Hidden is about these worlds and partly about the internet insofar as I think it acts as place in which anything is supposed to be graspable and knowable. The heart of the project is going to be a collaboration between artists who have very different relationships to imperialism and colonialism.
Another strand is called Pop Icons, which is about making a big, interactive, half-installation/half-theatre work that will pop up in cities across the United Kingdom without people having to jet around the world to cities in the Global North with big immigrant populations. It’s about overcoming the usual way that disparities of power between white communities and immigrant communities delineate what sort of popular musical heritage defines mainstream culture and public space.
The final strand is called What is Islam. It has really come out of the international work we have been doing in Europe. From Algerians in France to Turks in Germany and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom, the position of Muslims in Europe is a defining part of our post-colonial world. One of the pressing questions for me is how we can articulate our shared (and disparate) histories. Almost any articulation of this has one marked as an Islamist or artistically pigeonholed in making representational work about heritage. One of the interesting things that’s happened over the last two hundred years is that Islam and being a Muslim has become like Christianity and being a Christian. The distinction between the secular and profane is a distinction that only exists in the modern world. If I say Christian rock or Christian theatre, you know that means theatre or music built on the proposition that you should sign up for Christianity. But if you look at the history of Islamic art, you’ll find that the relationship between belief and no belief, the world and the spirit, is much more slippery. So there is no reason we should imagine “Muslim art” as a kind of art that tells you about “Islam” or tries to convince you of something about it.
Ultimately, all this work is about thinking about our responsibilities as artists. We are the custodians of a tradition that can be “poor” in all the best senses. What’s more, it can make things visible that nothing else can. There are truths we can tell through our work that can’t be told any other way. Fundamentally, we are making and supporting work—by myself and other artists—that wants to be part of that resistance I spoke about, that is built on the unique qualities of liveness and theatricality, and that wants to revivify and diversify the artists and audiences who come to play.