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.
What makes a play a gun control play?
Some background: In January 2013, I instigated along with theatre alliance NoPassport, a gun control theatre action in Washington, DC, in collaboration with Theater J, force/collision, and twinbiz to coincide with the March on Washington for Gun Control organized by Molly Smith and Suzanne Blue Star Boy. In February 2013, NoPassport Press published 24 Gun Control Plays, which gathers twenty-four plays, an essay, and an interview that were all inspired and/or presented at the Washington, DC, event. Since then, NoPassport has staged gun control theatre actions in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Sydney, Australia, and more in collaborations with NY Madness, New York Theatre Review, and The Vicious Circle. In May, a YouTube channel was launched by The Vicious Circle and NoPassport to invite artists to film and upload, with permission, their interpretations of these plays. In June of 2013 StageReads published a selection of the plays from 24 Gun Control Plays. This September, Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania will stage some of them for several performances. Other performances in other cities may occur in due course.
Through all of these actions what has remained constant is the faith amongst these artists that the dialogue about gun control in this country, and on a wider level, the abuse of arms globally is worth having, because the choice to be silent about this is not an option.
The question remains: are these short plays and performance texts in and of themselves gun control plays?
They are texts that address how we—
Live with and without guns
Experience and engender violence
Wound and heal,
Break and bleed.
And how sometimes we don’t know who we are as human beings in civilized societies unless we have a weapon at our side or know that there are weapons protecting us.
They are, as a body of plays, unruly dramas both in content and form. Their unruliness reflects the difficult nature of the overall thematic subject, but also, I would add, the complex character of plays that seek to not only reflect society but also intervene within it.
What is art’s efficacy?
I am of a conflicted mind about the nature of art and whether it has true efficacy, especially when it is not necessarily made with the direct and immediate goal to effect a change in a law or is somehow related to matters of governance in a village, town, or city. I believe in theatre and social action. I believe in applied theatre. But I also believe that art is not merely an instrument of social change. In fact, I am wary of art being put to utilitarian uses and being asked to fit a “useful” application in society.
Art is. And often is outside matters of written law. It delves into the chaotic, strange, odd, and unresolved aspects of humanity and being. It dives into the complications of love. It battles for a country’s soul through poetic means. It wrestles the spirit. It questions, sometimes, the meaning of religion. It embraces faith.
Art is unruly. It resists governance.
It is by nature transgressive. Artistic truth is resistant to consensus.
To write is an act of intervention.
“Here,” Art says, “is difference. Look.”
After Ranciere, how do we look when we look?
In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Ranciere, in Gregory Elliott’s translation, argues that looking can be dangerous, for “To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.” He further posits that the “established relations between seeing, doing, and speaking” (original emphasis) is troubled by spectatorship. In other words, to be a spectator of performance is not a passive act. It is not devoid of effort. It demands that the spectator free themselves of consensus in viewing a work, and thus, be free to engage in his/her/trans experience of a work, and ultimately engage in scenes of dissensus.
Every moment in live performance is in some way unstable and open to multiple and differing modes of interpretation and engagement (The unruly nature of art!), unless the makers of the performance seek a passive response.
One could argue that work made for mass consumption—aiming for unilateral lowest common denominator acceptance is profoundly apolitical, for it does not seek a true commons, where voices of differences and the redistribution of those voices allows for healthy dissensus.
As Jean-Luc Nancy says, “One could extrapolate from Ranciere that art is a means (and perhaps the most common one, considering all the forms of knowledge and power) of understanding our communal existence and the very modes of being in-common (what brings us together and what separates us).”
So, how does the spectator look?
Another way to ask this question is: How do we witness?
Trouble in mind
The desire to tell a story and to retell a story arises out of a need to bear witness and ask others to do so. Whether I retell Iphigenia’s story of sacrifice through the lens of the Ciudad Juarez murders in Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) or the stories of impoverished fishermen trying to eke out a life and living along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill disaster in The Way of Water or the story of a couple traversing time and space to try to understand the nature of love after all wars in Archipelago, I write out of stuff that troubles, and I ask those that come to the work as collaborators and as an audience to engage in these troubles in mind. At day’s end, I hope that something does change an audience member’s way of looking, seeing, and hearing the world after they have experienced the work, regardless of whether the work is immersive in conception or performed in a proscenium house.
Will that little bit of change make them vote differently one day for a referendum or a candidate?
Will they, because of having experienced the work, treat their fellow citizens and neighbors better?
Will they be walking down the supermarket aisle one day, and suddenly think about how their life is not so different, in the essence of humanity, from that of Iphigenia?
Art does not know how it will effect change. Or whether the change will be immediate or long-lasting. Or if any change, beyond one of momentary perception, will occur.
Art is a gamble. As is life.
You make a motion. You raise a voice or two. You trouble the trouble. And see.
At day’s end, I hope that something does change an audience member’s way of looking, seeing, and hearing the world after they have experienced the work, regardless of whether the work is immersive in conception or performed in a proscenium house.
This thing of beauty
I walk down the same streets every day.
I walk out the door and hardly look. My mind is aflush with all that must be done. Errands, meetings, and the busy-ness of life make up my day.
Occasionally, what seems out of the “ordinary” or “usual” will catch my eye or make me look at the streets I think I know so well anew.
Sometimes these moments of reawakening make their way into my writing.
Sometimes they are forgotten after a night’s sleep.
And sometimes they resurface days or weeks later in midst of a conversation or an article such as this.
I am thinking a lot about beauty and art these days, about the so-called seeming lack of social efficacy of beauty. You know, art and its purpose and those things that make up the heart of what we do.
Isn’t it enough to put beauty in the world? However rough and unusual it may be?
I am thinking about the poster for the movie 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and why it seems to demand passivity from me as a potential spectator of the film, and yet how, instead, the poster just makes me angry. Really, still, marketing the image of men holding weapons gunslinger-style is considered viable and even sexy?
Eight months have passed since the instigation of the first gun control theatre action and the publication of the 24 Gun Control Plays. It has been the summer of highly covered trials in the media—Bradley Manning, Ariel Castro, George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case—and the Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow travails of Edward Snowden. It has also been the one year anniversary of the massacre in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.
Life moves on.
And soon, perhaps, all of this will be forgotten.
Despite tragedies sustained and moments of inquiry and outrage.
Art’s job, one of its jobs, is to record. To look and remember. To rail against—humbly, provocatively, aggressively, or by tender means—what is/will be forgotten.
In some ways, making a piece of art is about catching the moment.
Even if no one’s looking.
Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
 Jean Luc-Nancy, “Jacques Ranciere and Metaphysics,” trans. by John Hurley, in Jacques Ranciere, ed. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 92.