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Need Discussions About Theatre & Politics Always Be Irksome?

April 7, 2008

Whenever the topic of theatre and politics comes up in conversation, people tend to shuffle uncomfortably, snort disdainfully or cross their eyes. Mentioning the the two subjects in one sentence tends to illicit negative or nervous responses, even though many people working in the performing arts -- and outside of them -- believe that all art is political and that theatre, because of its reliance on metaphor and allegory and ability to fly under the radar, is the most political of all art forms. You only have to read Charles Isherwood's recent article in The New York Times about two political plays in New York -- Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and David Mamet's November (pictured above) -- to see how unpalatable the politics/theatre mixture can get. "That both playwrights should come to grief with works of topical concern is not so unexpected," writes Isherwood. "Politics and playwriting have rarely been a profitable match, particularly when reasonably current affairs are the subject. In the electronic-media age, the partnership is even more strained."

Throwing caution to the wind, a small group of theatre people from the Bay Area met for pizza and cupcakes to discuss the yukky subject of politics and theatre in Oakland last night.

The meeting was part of the series of ongoing "theatre salons" that myself and five other Bay Area theatre people launched around a year ago. The aim of the salons is to get people within the theatre community engaging in discussions about the performing arts with a view to raising the quality of dialogue and inspiring an exchange of information between disparate corners of the community. This might include getting big companies talking to small companies, critics talking to stage managers and choreographers talking to producers for example.

The six of us had been bandying the theme of theatre and politics around via email discussions for many months before assembling a small group of 12 guests for last night's get together. The format was atypical. Unlike previous salons, which are held on a much bigger scale with around 40 guests, tons of booze and a party atmosphere, this meeting focused on engaging people in a more intimate setting with a more focused discussion.

The change proved pretty fruitful. People diverged on several issues, such as whether all theatre is political by definition or whether a production needs to proclaim itself as a work of political theatre in order to be political, and whether the theatre needs more right-wing plays or just better left-wing ones.

For me, the most interesting part of the discussion delved into notions of theatre's validity as a vehicle for galvanizing social change. Salon guests disagreed about the extent to which art can make people think and possibly change their beliefs. But most agreed that policy-making / policy-changing is beyond the capabilities of most works of art when viewed in isolation. That said, when we looked more closely at the matter, it seems that if many works of arts in multiple media galvanize around an idea, it can gather force until it spreads into public discourse. Conversations start happening as a result of all the ideas spawned by art, and a context for potential political change starts to take shape. But no work of art can achieve political change in isolation. A sweeping movement is what's needed. In other words, Angels in America may be the most famous "AIDS play" to have come out of the 1980s and it arguably tapped into the public consience and helped to bring attention to the disease and breakdown stigmas associated with it. But Angels didn't achieve this on its own. Hundreds of other since-forgotten dramas all played a role in creating the context for the sea-change -- not to mention the many magazine and newspaper articles, novels, non-fiction books, films, and dance pieces etc. which followed suit.

The soiree showed me two things. One, that the smaller, dinner-table format is in many ways more successful for engendering serious discussion about culture than the bigger salon format. Two, that theatre and politics isn't an irksome subject. We barely scratched the surface, but the dialogue went in fascinating directions, offering me new insights into how I approach the world around me. I think we'll do it again.

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