Theatre has always been an effective tool for activism. Even theatre by artists, like me, with very clear opinions is done in a space where a group of people will have to respond to those ideas both with each other as a collective group, and at home when they think about what they have experienced. And hopefully they experienced empathy. Activist theatre asks people in a community to look at their lives in a new light, think honestly about the issues, and then ask "What can I do?"
I have been participating in theatre since I was about twelve, often doing shows year-round, sometimes two at a time. The stage has always been a place where I've found acceptance and freedom. It's like a second home to me. From Godspell to a complicated puppet show featuring a giant, I have always felt changed by the productions I've done. I'll never forget standing on the edge of a stage during a production of Children of Eden singing, "Our hands can choose to drop the knife/ Our hearts can choose to stop the hating/ For every moment of our life/ Is the beginning..." I sang for people I knew at school who felt like they didn't fit in and their tormentors; I sang for family members who had trouble moving on and forgiving. I sang for people who, like me, saw others in a human way, believing they were generally good. I was changed by that experience because I felt empowered to help those who had been marginalized and hurt, and I was going to choose to love them. That's why I'm so passionate about using theatre for social change.
Personal change is the first level of transformation that leads to greater change. Only individuals who have been willing to change their perceptions and actions because of an experience will make a difference in the intended way. Theatre shows people themselves and the humanity in others, and that often gives birth to critical thinking and/or empathy and compassion.
Recently a group of women in my area, most of whom I attended university with, put together a devised production called The V-Project which explored gender roles in our community. In talking to one of the creators recently she told me she thought the show was very effective as an activist tool overall: not just in production, but in the process. They gathered stories from women both in person and online, using social media platforms to reach out to others and to advertise the workshops they held. They also made space for the audience to participate in the discussion. She couldn't express enough the amount of change she thought possible and what she knows did occur. Many who participated told her how their perceptions had changed over the process and one women said explicitly that the show had given her the courage to talk to her husband about something she hadn't been able to before. This is just one example of what is happening today where groups come together to make theatre and make change in their community and they use all the means at their hands, both in person and online.
Theatre Activism in History
Theatre has always been a tool for social change and activism, though it isn't always used that way. From Greek satire to modern groups like The Tectonic Theater Project, communities have been asked to look at criticism of authority or cultural norms and engage in conversations about difficult topics. For a curated list of activist theatre and books about it see this Pinterest board. Some key figures of the last century follow:
Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre, which sought to "alienate" the audience, make them uncomfortable, and cause them to think about social issues.
Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, performing for migrant workers.
Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed, which helped communities find solutions to societal problems and oppression.
Vaclav Havel, who wrote plays and was part of activist movements in Czechoslovakia, was imprisoned because of pressure from the USSR, but eventually became Czechoslovakia's president.
Then and Now
In the book, By Any Media Necessary, Henry Jenkins discusses the phrase of Sartre made famous by Malcom X to take action “by any means necessary.” Today, young people do that through "any media necessary" by sharing things online, making videos, doing street performances (often recorded and shared), creating memes, using hashtags like #iftheygunnedmedown, all to criticize media portrayals of race and gender as well as inequality in society. They are creating social, cultural, and even political change without or alongside political processes. For Vaclav Havel "any means necessary" was writing protests, essays, and petitions as samizdat, works printed on carbon paper that got passed around on the underground because the USSR controlled printing in the country. By the time anything had circled the groups of intellectuals opposed to the government they were often very difficult to read.
Today, we can share our ideas with the click of a button on the computer, but that doesn’t mean they will reach those we intend to influence, or that they will take action. In Havel’s play The Protest, Vanek (a stand-in for Havel himself) goes to a writer friend of his who is still allowed to write because he works for the government, in order to get the friend, Stanek, to sign it. Stanek goes on about how it would relieve his conscience and set a good example for his daughter, but in the end, decides not to sign and simply gives Vanek some cash. He’ll support the cause in a certain way, but only if it’s anonymous. He refuses to act, even when he feels it is right. Stanek’s actions are the pre-internet equivalent to slacktivism.
Just as the protest Vanek wishes Stanek to sign was difficult to get around, the same went for Havel’s political writings, but not his plays. Many of them, though banned within Czechoslovakia, were performed outside it, and influenced the world. Even today groups like the Ambassador Theater perform works to foster international communication, just as they adapted and performed The Protest to discuss the dangers of conformity.
Modern examples using digital media to share:
WEEDS - Theatre activism in Zimbabwe
A call for funding:
Just as theatre can reinvigorate a cause as videos are shared online, the easy access allows artists to find collaborators, advertise, reach so many people, and most of all, appeal to their human empathy. They make the local, global, which comes back to the local with greater potency for change. Groups and causes from around the globe have become part of my intimate world because I see them online, especially through social media platforms like YouTube. I've seen groups from here in the United States to India and Africa. Theatre makers are making change and we all have an opportunity to not only see it, but be a part of it.
Havel, Vaclav. The Garden Party and Other Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1993. Print.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. New York: New York University Press, 2016.