As most of our theatres enter a new performance season, there’s great anticipation of how the year will unfold. Which productions will particularly resonate with artists and audiences in towns across North America? How will the events of our time affect attendance, fundraising, and the inspirational muses that propel our artists? What political or environmental challenges will arise, and what might we be called upon to accomplish together as a field?
For the last 12 months, we’ve been kept on our toes, as the news pummels us like an assembly line gone rogue. Current events at times seem like the highest form of drama, which then bolt us upright as we realize that what seemed staged is in fact painfully real. It is difficult to lay low and forgo the chance to respond. And that response so often comes these days via social media, which whips up a frenzy and dies down, only to skyrocket again when the next media storm—or actual storm—arrives. If you are going to be engaged, you have to be quick. If you want to make a difference, you have to stick with it. If you want to effect change through this art form, you have consider that theatre is usually neither quick nor direct.
Direct action often takes the form of collective action. Earlier this year we saw the launch of the Ghostlight Project, with the statement “Everyone Is Welcome,” meant to counter the alarming rise of hate crimes and xenophobia in our nation since last year’s election. The organizers worked hard to keep the spirit alive beyond Ghostlight’s January launch date. At TCG’s National Conference in Portland, some of our society’s toxic dynamics were exposed and analyzed, reminding us of our power as a theatre nation both to support each other and be allies for change. Our action on the ground and through direct bipartisan communications with Congress led to some major wins last season, including an increase in the NEA appropriation for fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, and Congressional support for sustaining the NEA at nearly the same levels for the new yet-to-be-finalized budget—both counter to the advice of the president, who backed elimination of the agency. Outside the immediate political realm, hurricanes and wildfires devastated some theatres, causing us to rally behind them as they heal and take stock.
We also became increasingly aware of the ideological complexity of this moment. Not everyone believes the same things, and the divisiveness felt in many of our communities today is born of this tension. We see that conflict at play within our own community of artists, craftspeople, technicians, educators, administrators, and trustees. Recognizing this, many theatre leaders asked themselves last season: How do we become a source of healing, of bringing people together across the divides?
There’s an inherent drive among artists toward building a kinder, more just planet where people can live free, and lead productive, healthy lives without experiencing discrimination and the possibility of random or organized violence because of who they are, and where we can create art that speaks truth to power, reflecting on the times we are in, even if only metaphorically. These are all worth fighting for.
I came across a gem of a book this past summer, Von Ripper’s Odyssey: War, Resistance, Art and Love by Sian Mackay. Austrian artist Rudolph von Ripper spent most of his years in Europe but later came to the States, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and was an artist in residence at Yaddo. He had battled the growing injustice in Europe, even surviving torture in German prisons. His story reminded me that, while most of us do “battle” on the internet, in those days some of our prominent artists went to the actual battlefront.
Von Ripper’s story is profound. His famous illustration, which graced the cover of Time magazine in 1939, when Hitler was named man of the year for 1938, showed Der Führer in a cathedral playing the pipe organ while torture victims dangled from a Catherine wheel overhead (“From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate,” read the caption). That powerful image contributed to the growing consciousness in the U.S. about the terror in Europe. This was a time when our artists were on the front lines fighting fascism: Ernest Hemingway in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, Paul Robeson touring that country and causing the two sides to lay down arms as he sang at the battlefront. The list goes on.
How can we most powerfully engage our art form today, for everyone, and for the times we are in?
George C. Wolfe, who ran the Public Theater around the turn of the millennium, was often quoted about his wish that the Public’s lobby reflect New York’s diversity so well that it resembled a subway stop. But while the subway appeals to the widest range of people because it is the least expensive and (usually) most time efficient way to travel, theatre may not be the fastest or cheapest way. It may, however, be the only way to achieve things that are crucial and necessary.
No matter their role, people come to the theatre because it fills a need—for entertainment, for reflection, for bonding with friends and family, for a sense of familiarity and home at a local institution, for the magic of live performance, for something to talk about, for spiritual grounding. Simply being there can signal a kind of activism or openness to engagement. At its best, theatre doesn’t lecture even when it’s created as a form of resistance.
As we enter a new season, and an ever-changing political reality, we need theatre to be all these things more than ever.