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27 Spotlight Right: Social Change and the Purpose of Theater

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Social Change and the Purpose of Theater

Playwright Bruce Norris

Bruce Norris ruffled a few feather in the Twitter-verse this week with his interview in the Guardian.  Basically, he said that it was optimistic to believe that theater can really change anything.  His reason was that people are essentially bad natured.  I think its a pretty silly argument, but as my twitter feed lit up with comments from theater folks I respect a lot, something interesting emerged.  Dramaturge Ilana Brownstein suggested that the work of Vaclav Havel and Athol Fugard plainly shows that theater can help to change things.  It’s a reasonable argument, both writers played huge roles in liberating people in their societies.  But it seems to me that they had a big advantage in doing so because they lived under horribly repressive regimes.  When we ask about the purpose of theater, and the extent to which that purpose involves social change, the current condition of society must inform our answers.  This is not to say that the US is a perfect society, far from it, but in fairness Bruce Norris does not have anything as destructive of human liberty to take aim at as Apartheid or Soviet Communism. 

All activism, including artistic activism is easier when there is a clear target, a simple change that can be demanded.  We recently saw Occupy Wall Street struggle to gain permanent footing because they lacked a clear target.  The right to live in a democracy is a clear target, the demand that all races be treated equally under the law is a clear target.  For the most part the racism and oppression of our society is no longer institutional in these clear targetable ways.  A debate over how many days of early voting will best encourage minority participation is not as black and white as a debate over poll taxes.  One notable exception is the gay marriage movement, which does have a clear institutional demand.  It should not surprise us then that gay rights has been an area where theater has helped to foster great change in the past few decades. 

Theater, in particular among the arts, has a fundamental advantage when operating under a repressive regime or in a repressive society.  Unlike film, books, television or even visual arts, theater can exist with little to no permanent physical footprint.  As the other art forms give way to state or social control, theater is unique in its ability to appear and disappear almost out of thin air.  Havel could not have done what he did as a filmmaker, at least not while on the ground in his own country.  In today’s American art and entertainment there are very few topics that are off limits.  Even issues about gay rights have been adopted into the mainstream.  So theater loses its privileged position as a safe place to talk a little treason. 

The transgressive theater artists of the past who labored under the challenge of strict restriction, did indeed help change the world.  But in doing so they also provided today’s theater artists with an enormous challenge.  They were so effective in opening up taboo subjects, that they have left us with precious few.  That brings us back to the purpose of theater. As wistfully as we may long for windmills of injustice to tilt at, they simply are not as prominent on the landscape as they once were.  As I noted at the top, I think Norris’ comments are silly, but not because he seems disinterested in social change.  What he is missing is that theater has the power to change individuals by offering them a new and unique view of the world, and how they ought to live in it.  This is a subtle purpose, and frankly one for which is difficult to judge success, but make no mistake, it can be a powerful force for change. 


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