One Down / Politics of Political Theatre

Theatre

(crossposted)

One show down. Last night’s debut of Israel/Palestine went, I felt, very well. With interactive theatre — with any theatre, really, but especially with theatre that relies on audience response at its heart — it never really comes alive until you get an audience in the same room as the performers. And we had a good-sized audience, basically a full house (although numbers are fluid), and a very responsive one. We’d had a chance to test our ideas at our scratch, but this was the real test — what happens when we try with 50 people what we’ve never tried with more than 8? Will they move where we want them? Will they feel what we hope? Will they ask what we’d like? Will they do what we really, really want, which is to react in entirely unexpected ways? And will we be able to respond fluidly, with improvisation, to genuinely take their input into account?

Mostly, it all worked smoothly. A hitch here and there, but nothing major, and each risk we took seemed to pay off. The actors kept the pace rocketing along, and the audience took that desired trajectory from enjoyable participation to serious reflection. But what, really, is the measure of success?

It’s whether or not the audiences felt genuinely informed, empowered and moved. There are three aims I have with this piece: to get some basic information about the crisis across, to encourage people to think about and be involved with the crisis in a genuine way, and to bear witness to death, atrocity and sorrow. So if people tell me afterwards that they want to find out more, or if they cry, or if they engage the performers in an argument about politics, then that’s a success. And they did.

As I left the performance space, I found people having a fascinating argument about the purposes and problems of political theatre. Should it try and get a particular message across? What’s the difference between art and propaganda? What’s the difference between coercion and the emotional manipulation common to all art? Are heartstring-tugging and thought-provoking in opposition? What should theatre do, in politics?

Dan Rebellato asked the same thing in a Guardian article called “Can political theatre change the world?” Like George Hunka in his blog, I rather wonder if he’s not asking the wrong question. I really don’t see my theatre, this piece of theatre, as a major actor in large-scale public discourse and action. And I’m sceptical of whether any theatre could be; as Rebellato admits, theatre plays to small audiences from a restricted range of social backgrounds. I also suspect that the majority of theatre, which only allows freedom in the sphere of thought, and not in movement and suggestion, is restricted in what it can do with audiences: impart new information, at a pinch, and maybe provoke a new thought or two, but certainly not empower, and certainly not involve in genuine debate. So I don’t see how theatre could change the world.

What I do think political theatre can do is be an active participant in the world it finds itself in. That might sound a bit abstract, so I’ll try and explain: in this show, we bring a few dozen people into a room with seven performers, and spend 90 minutes exploring a major political crisis with them. We use our own names, we never pretend that the audience isn’t there, that the performers aren’t performers, and that the space isn’t what it is, even if we occasionally ask the audience to use their imaginations to be transported elsewhere. We are in the room with the audience, and we’re asking the audience to be in the room with us. That means that they’re in the crisis with us, and throughout the performance we’re directly asking them to be involved. We are asking them to act within that world, and so within the politics of the crisis in general. We are working to find a way to use theatre to speak with this small group of people, in this small room, and to act with them. Together, we are changing that world. It’s a sort of “Think Global, Act Local”, I suppose, however problematic that statement is.

So this is an idea for a kind of theatre, a kind of performance technology, which we hope can be spread and used widely. As the manifesto we wrote under What is OST? says, we think that everyone should make theatre. The politics of our political theatre is small-scale, viral, local, interconnected, variable. It’s not big story changing the world, it’s about being together with our communities, working with them, understanding the local performance space. That’s a world I can be part of, not to change from the outside, but to develop, together.

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