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Preaching To The Choir

January 3, 2008

I've been having a debate with a friend of mine about the political impact of theatre, specifically concerning whether the art form can play a role in shaping peoples' ideas -- perhaps even the way they vote -- in an election year. My friend, whom I shall call Dan, had the following to say on the subject:

"Re the political impact of theater: It has none since it doesn't get shown to the masses like TV, film or Internet fare. Michael Moore's film [Fahrenheit 9/11] got the whole country talking before the 2004 election; there was no equivalent in theater that I know of. Theater is a local medium that reaches a relatively small audience. And because the productions are being chosen by local companies, they are no doubt opting for scripts that reflect the sensibilities of Bay Area audiences. In other words, they're not trying to change anyone's mind--they're preaching to the choir."

With all due respects to Dan, this is a tired and limited way of looking at theatre's potential impact on politics. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. While it's true that theatre doesn't have the global reach of mass media like movies, the Web and TV, it possesses more immediacy than any other medium. Because it's much more "in yer face", it has the power to touch people in a deeper and more visceral way than other media.

2. Quantity is not always a measure of success in reaching people. The quality of the message is also important. Mass media might succeed in reaching millions of people, but often the message is diluted, over-simplified, facile and liable to be instantly forgotten. Of course, you could say the same thing of many theatre productions too. But when you come across a performance which touches your heart and head and engages you completely, the message somehow sticks more persistently than if you simply sat in front of the TV passively. Theatre may not have the power to convert entire populations in one go, but it can make a difference one person at a time.

3. There is very likely no direct equivalent of a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 in contemporary theatre history in terms of generating dinner table conversation. But there have been some powerful grassroots-type initiatives which have helped to mobilize people around political ideas as well as create national -- even international -- buzz. The example that springs instantly to mind is the Lysistrata Project of 2003. On Monday, 03/03/03, fifty-nine countries hosted 1,029 readings of Lysistrata, Aristophanes' anti-war comedy, to protest the Bush Administration's unilateral war on Iraq. Readings were held in theatres, schools, churches, libraries, private homes, cafes, community centers, clubs, subway cars, parks, and on street corners. More than 300,000 people attended the readings, which raised an estimated $125,000 for non-profit organizations working for peace and humanitarian aid. The project earned a great deal of national media attention. It still serves today as a beacon for the community activism movement.

4. The "preaching to the choir" issue is a serious one -- perhaps the only part of Dan's comments that actually has some serious substance to it. Take Bay Area theatre for example. It's pretty much entirely run by left-wing artists putting out liberal plays for like-minded audiences. Then again, with the possible exception of Christian rock music, the entire arts world more or less follows this vein, at least in the west. As a result, I'm wondering whether this argument, which is essentially aimed against the liberal tendencies of theatre artists rather than audiences is worth reexamining. Art is -- and pretty much always has been -- opposed to power structures. It's about rebellion. One of its main jobs is to question injustices of all kinds. Lisa Goldman, artistic director of Soho Rep in London, recently offered the following brilliant statement when asked by a Daily Telegraph journalist about British theatre's history of "preaching to the choir" and why it's so hard to find a conservative play on the professional stage:

"What would a Right-wing play have to offer? Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view what theatre needs is not more Right-wing plays but better Left-wing ones."

Here, here, Lisa. What we need is theatre that has a rebel heart yet at the same time challenges sloppy liberal thinking. A playwright needn't be right wing to pick holes in comfortable champagne liberal mores. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, for all its didacticism, has been quite good at doing this with its shows in recent years. It's also interesting to note how in a political play like David Edgar's Continental Divide, the most sympathetic character isn't a Liberal, but a Republican.

To Goldman's point, I might also add that while works of art have long been liberal, audiences have not necessarily been biased so strongly towards the left. If the theatre is attended largely by left-wingers today, it's because they're generally the faction of the population that still cares about the arts in a culture taken hostage by mass commercial media. The bastion cultural organization in big cities, like SF Ballet, SF Symphony, SF Opera and ACT in San Francisco, and Broadway / West End still attract a mixed crowd, politically speaking because of their civic standing. But anything smaller and non-profit generally attracts a liberal crowd.

So the "preaching to the choir" issue cuts two ways. The "preachers" (ie the theatre companies) need to give us theatre that makes us think without preaching to us. This is perfectly possible to accomplish. What's trickier is figuring out what to do about the "choir" (ie the audiences). Theatre companies are always looking for ways to broaden their audiences. They try to get younger people in, people of different racial and economic backgrounds etc. Perhaps it's time to look for ways to diversify audiences from a political perspective. This is the biggest challenge, I believe.



  • Hi Chloe,

    What about the Vagina Monologues and subsequent annual V-Day actions? Tenth year coming up soon. I’d be interested in your take on preaching to the “vulva choir.”

    I found it a very difficult subject to explore.”

    By Blogger Nick , At January 3, 2008 at 11:29 AM  

  • Good point, Nick. I'd forgotten about Eve Ensler. Thanks.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 3, 2008 at 1:01 PM  

  • One reason I like Bruce Norris' plays ("The Pain and the Itch", "The Unmentionables") is that he consistently takes on the hypocrisies of the comfortably upper-middle-class liberal chattering classes. Admittedly, his targets can be a little fish-in-the-barrel, at least for my tastes, but he also gets at the heart of what I think really challenging sociopolitical theater should do, which is to ask audiences just how much they're willing to sacrifice so that others can have more -- whether more material comfort, personal liberty, security, etc.

    And I know I mentioned this show to you in passing in an email earlier today (, but it's truly the smartest thing I've ever seen about American politics. Oobleck walks it like it talks it -- they work in a highly collaborative and non-hierarchical way (read: no director). Some of their shows can be hot messes, but their best work is the best stuff I've seen in my life. Ever. And really, they're probably the reason that I got excited about writing about theater in the first place (seeing Judi Dench as Mother Courage got me excited about the possibilities of theater across the board).

    What I don't want to see anymore are plays that excoriate Americans for their ignorance of events abroad, and then proceed to explain those events in the most simplistic fashion possible. "Tesla's Letters" by Jeffrey Stanley, which I reviewed a couple months ago, comes to mind here. A naive American grad student is taken to task by Serbian academics at Tesla's Library and Museum in Belgrade for failing to recognize what is happening in the Balkans in the late 1990s -- but the only framework provided by her would-be educators is that it's a land of "ancient enmities." Thanks for the solid! Couldn't have grokked that on my own!

    As for the effect of film on shaping conscience, I remember an interview with Spike Lee years ago where he said the only movie he think actually changed a life was Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," which helped get a wrongly accused man freed from prison. But that doesn't mean that doing plays, movies, and television shows with sociopolitical content doesn't keep the climate for discussion primed, of course.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 3, 2008 at 2:26 PM  

  • Oobleck link appears to be bad.

    Try this:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 3, 2008 at 2:31 PM  

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