New York-based playwright and educator Caridad Svich was in Orlando a week before last year’s election. She was giving a keynote address at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival as part of the After Orlando theatre action when the possibility of Trump being elected became real.
“I kept seeing Trump-Pence signs posted on the front lawns of houses and people of all ages wearing Make America Great again caps,” Svich writes in an email. “It felt, to me, like a sign of what was to come, especially when one considers the fact that, among other things, he represents the absolute triumph of the society of the spectacle (in the Debordian sense).”
Svich, like most people I spoke to, says that Trump’s election did not necessarily sway her thinking about theatremaking. She insists that, though the political situation is troubling, she’s doing what she always has.
“Theatremaking is resistance—period,” Svich adds. “If you are doing soul work, deep culture work, then you’re in it for the long haul. One election, no matter how unsettling, doesn’t change the nature of a mission. If anything, perhaps it makes one more dedicated.”
One of Svich’s responses to the election was to pitch a blog series, called Stages of Resistance, to New York’s Lark Theatre. Svich says that while this historical moment is one of crisis on multiple levels, larger concerns like climate change, rising inequality between the very rich and the poor, the refugee crisis, and more were also crucial to instigating and launching the series. She hopes that the pieces on the blog may “offer guidance, hope, and a bit of healing too during these rather intense and deeply divisive” times.
Larry Bogad, founder of the Center for Tactical Performance in Berkeley, Calif., confesses that he struggles to satirize the Trump regime. “It’s Orwell meets the Three Stooges,” Bogad quips. “It’s hard to satirize because it can’t be exaggerated.”
Yet the challenges we face are deeper than making the form fit the content. Because these problems spill over from the performance space into the streets and into our homes, we must go beyond the theatre’s four walls to make an impact. Bogad points out many ways theatremakers can contribute to their communities.
“We can begin by using the elite’s own words against them,” Bogad enthuses. “Theatre artists can help demonstrations and direct actions in the streets to be more creative, charismatic, and theatrical. We have to tell our story compellingly to the rest of the nation to get more people on board. There’s an awful lot of nihilism, individualism, and defeatism to overcome. So we’ve got to encourage and energize more people to get active, by showing through example that it’s possible to fight and win.”
While the daily news cycle since Trump’s election has been devastating, Bogad seaches for possibilities.“What gives me hope,” says Bogad, “is that people have actually been mobilized and galvanized by the chaotic cruelty of this regime.”
Sojourn Theatre artistic director Michael Rohd agrees that Trump’s rise to power did little to alter his approach to theatremaking. “As we approach year 20 in our company’s life,” says Rohd, “presidential administrations don’t necessarily change the way we approach purpose and process,” says Rohd. “We’ve always been engaged deeply in civic dialogue and the act of building complex, diverse partnerships and audiences. But certainly at this moment of urgent crisis in the lives of many people negatively, drastically impacted by policies and attitudes across the nation, we must ask: What conversations are truly necessary right now? What sort of spaces need to be built, and what sort of imagining needs to occur? How can we contribute most meaningfully?”
Sojourn’s response to these questions has been to create a piece that encourages further questioning: Care Exam is described as a tour-ready “devised participatory piece” using a “speculative-fiction immersive framework to ask the questions: How do you care? How do systems care? Who are you responsible for?”
Leese Walker, who founded New York-based Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, was also motivated by the election to step up her efforts.
“Trump’s election has strengthened our resolve,” she says. “It’s increased the urgency for us to make socially responsive theatre. I spent last week facilitating an intensive seminar on infusing theatre techniques into the classroom, leveraging my skill set to engage other change-makers by equipping them with additional teaching techniques. I’m pretty fired up right now—the whole ensemble is.”
This doesn’t mean that Walker and company are out in the streets preaching at people, as in agitprop theatre.
“We don’t tell people what to think,” says Walker. “We prod and provoke people to consider new ideas, to debate, to look inside, to question norms, to think critically. When we created Same River, we attempted to establish trust with everyone we talked to. We focused on capturing the complexities of the specific community members we interviewed so that we could create bridges in communities where dialogue had completely broken down. Theatre has the power to illuminate commonalities and difference in really nuanced ways.”
Walker and company also worked playwright Amy Witting last spring to create a play about immigration in Trump’s America. All of the students at the school, Manhattan International High School, have immigrated to the U.S. within the last four years.
“The play that they collectively wrote, Catch Me in America, was poetic and poignant,” says Walker. “The students performed the play for all of their peers and then attended a staged reading at Abingdon Theatre with professional actors. There was not a dry eye in the house. The experience was transformative on so many levels. The students came to realize that their voices really mattered.”
Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater, notes that “as August’s white supremacist events were unfolding up the interstate in Charlottesville, we were at home in the coalfields of central Appalachia, working with the Pregones Theater ensemble from the Bronx in residence.”
The occasion was the premiere of the concert version of Roadside Theater and Pregones co-created off-Broadway musical Betsy! For Cocke, collaborating with artists from various backgrounds and regions is the best response to the current moment.
“Since 1975, Roadside has been performing original plays for poor, working-class, and middle-class audiences across 45 states,” says Cocke. “Our intercultural body of work has been co-created with African American, Latino, and Native ensembles, which similarly situate their drama in deep, place-specific cultural traditions.”
Though the past year has left many reeling and feeling defeated, it may be best to counteract despair—and the urge to join that Facebook argument—by being active, getting involved in projects (theatrical and in your community), and being the change you wish to see in the world.
Those looking for more ideas might check out Practical Jobs for Utopian Artists, from the “Imaginary Activism” series, by La Pocha Nostra founder Guillermo Gómez-Peña and company member Emma Tramposch.
David Dudley is a writer and educator. He is currently pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.