“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
― Noam Chomsky
“We have to be better friends of reality: all of man’s activities – including of course, all the arts, especially theater – are political. And theater is the most perfect artistic form of coercion.”
– Augusto Boal
On February 15, 2003, between 6 and 10 million people in over 600 cities poured into the streets to protest the coming war in Iraq. It was the largest political protest in the history of humanity. We were met with batons, pepper spray, and, most damaging of all, indifference. It wasn’t just that there were no weapons of mass destruction (there weren’t), or that there wasn’t a connection between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (other than mutual disdain). For many of us, it was the simple premise that violence solves nothing. Ever. In fact, Iraqi civilians suffered anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 deaths as a direct result of the American invasion, but who’s counting?
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how right or righteous we were. We were met with a solid wall of utter and absolute indifference. The influence of corporate and political power coupled with the narcissistic fear of the comfortable was unbreakable and unimpeachable.
With some notable exceptions, the response to the general apathy towards THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING IN THE WORLD AT THAT MOMENT (emphasis mine) was despair. Between 6 and 10 million people threw up their hands and went back to whatever it was they were doing. There were arrests, beatings, some imprisonment, but in the end most of us just went back to keeping ourselves as comfortable as possible.
If the united voice of between 6 and 10 million people couldn’t be heard, what could one possibly do? Why stand up? Why speak out? What good is howling into a hurricane?
Look at it: In the experience of the populace at large (what I like to think of as a thing called “the audience”), the American Theatre is a system of endowed institutions supported in large part by corporations and, to a lesser extent, government funding, and, to an even lesser extent, ticket sales. They’re mostly run by middle-aged white men and employ mostly middle-aged white men. They present productions which aggrandize the bourgeois experience by making it epic, by writing it large, by reifying it. Even in the context of an illegal war, a revival of All My Sons–a Greek tragedy-inspired, protest play–would do nothing but expunge guilt over murderous complicity. In the predominant climate, it would fail to make one re-examine one’s relationship with atrocity. Rather it would expunge our negative feelings associated with the commodity of violence, relegating the audience to “viewer,” a passive ticket buyer, who watches, goes home, and gets back to the business of passive consumption and apathy.
Catharsis, as Boal points out, in many respects is the ultimate tool of the bourgeois state apparatus. Those people up there on the stage feel things so that the audience can sorta feel those things and then go home. That’s it. That’s the story.
But the Theatre is better than that. It ought to be better than that and therefore can be better than that. It must.
The entire notion of what constitutes an audience must be redefined. The Theatre must find a way to reach the least among us. We must speak to the millions of people (again, what I like to think of as “the audience”) who have never been directly addressed by Theatre. How? The theatre must be free. So long as there is an economic barrier which prevents vast swaths of our democracy from being engaged by the civic laboratory that is the Theatre, there is no Theatre.
We must redefine the audience-spectator relationship in a meaningful way. The us/them dynamic of the proscenium must be relegated to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. There have been strides in this in the last 50 years, but they are glacially slow and rarely up to the challenges of the information age. You’re annoyed by people texting and tweeting during your play? It’s easy: make the play more viscerally engaging. Make it impossible to look away. Try making your play more interesting and informative than 140 characters. Do better work.
It is necessary to view every decision as sociopolitical. Every choice is not just about you, the institution, but about us, the community. The theatre is describing us at that very instant. It’s asking us who we are, not telling us who we have been, or might be.
If we want to combat the twin poisons of apathy and despair that prevail in the mass consciousness, we must begin to believe that the Theatre is the antidote.
Boal, quoted above, was kidnapped off the street, tortured and exiled for attempting to de-pacify the spectator. Was it such a threat to Power, this notion that someone at a play might feel as though they were an active part of that play and that a citizen might feel as though she were an active part of the world, as though she were alive, that a theatre director should be persecuted by the state?
We may not live in that time, or under that regime, but wouldn’t it be delicious to put something up that might get you arrested? To start a conversation that could end in sedition?
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel alive?
The crisis of the American Theatre, the why theatre? question that lurks around every corner, is simply that the Theatre doesn’t take itself seriously enough; as if it were afraid of its own power. It’s a shameful question to ask.