I look at the terrible times we are living in and really question what is theatre doing to expose the horrors of our time? And even if artists are exposing these horrors, what difference is it actually making? Are we indifferent? Do we just say, “oh that’s a story” and go on as we did before? Laughter and Satire are effective in a sense and importantly keep dissension alive but are they little more than a safety valve, when those that govern us do not seem to really care if they are shown up to be liars, cowards and charlatans? Have we become sanitised to dramatized or even real horror and injustice?
As the arts have become corporatised they seem for the most part to have been massively weakened in terms of their impact on the wider world. I always said, at the beginning of the sponsorship boom in the UK, that sponsorship was a form of censorship. I feel that it was the first substantial step to pretty much anaesthetising the arts rather than making them something for everyone.
Of course in facilitating/directing Applied Drama and youth theatre, by giving the marginalised a chance to tell their stories, we are doing something profound. In teaching people theatre, enabling them to find their mode of expression, their confidence, their voices, a sense of who they are, we are doing something. This is a truly beautiful thing that happens when we are working with theatre. It creates a sense of the whole, a sense of teamwork and an understanding, if only for a while, that gives us a sense of how things could be, in a fairer more open world.
Groups like ‘Clowns without Borders’ who go to places of conflict and refugee camps with their shows are a moving and courageous testament to a belief that art can transform lives, or at least provide a window to something better. Children’s theatre companies like ‘Branar’ here in Ireland can open the minds and lives of children and promote change.
Michael Chekhov lived in a turbulent period in world history, in post revolutionary Russia and then in exile in war torn Europe. The direction of his life was seriously affected by world events and he believed and discussed The Theatre of the Future and the obligations of the theatre to shine a light on things; to change things. As Mala Powers states in her piece in Chekhov’s “On The Technique of Acting”, “Chekhov’s vision of a future theatre also called for a sense of moral responsibility from producers, directors and writers, as well as actors. He said they must be willing to ask…..”will what we are presenting have any positive value for them (audience) as human beings”. I so often often see pieces that do not consider this issue; they are flabby, commercial and/or ego-driven. Even well-performed, at the core they are often meaningless.
In 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brought together musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Middle East countries to play classical music at the highest level. There was no acceptance that bringing the musicians together from their places of conflict would solve the political problems in which they found themselves and they were encouraged to discuss and have dialogue about the situation. However, the very act of this group making music together creates a kind of alchemy for me. It makes me ask the question, “How can they do this when some must hate the other?” And the answer is, it is the music that brings them together. Of course, I can say cynically to myself, “Well they have the opportunity to play around the world with Barenboim, to learn – why wouldn’t they put up with this difficult situation?” And yet it is still the love of music and their ability to play that brings them to the table. Music can do this. In a way music transforms us more effectively than a play because the sheer professionalism and discipline of the performers alone is incredibly moving, especially when they are young. And music, though it provokes strong feelings, is abstract. It makes us feel the human spirit can soar higher than everyday politics and existence.
Yet, isn’t part of the purpose of theatre to provoke debate, action? For me, musical theatre which unites music with an accessible story often packs a strong political punch. When I first saw Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim at Drury Lane during the Thatcher period, it made a profound impact on me as did A Chorus Line, which is not just about “showbiz” but about the way we strive to conform and are willing to throw our individuality away in order to be employed because we have to survive in a hostile world. However, for me the musical theatre world too often is associated with the corporate world (It is “show business” after all) which for me limits the effects once I leave the theatre and step out into the everyday world.
So how do the arts bring change and impact on political and social injustices? I feel it is important that we do not just stir people by only illuminating injustice, prejudice and danger, nor only by satirising and highlighting the self-interest of many of those who lead us. We have to arm ourselves and our audiences with alternatives with positive messages of endurance, alternatives, love and survival.