Tag Archives: political theatre

The Weight Of This Sad Time We Must Obey

 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. Howeverthe 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.



Radiating and Receiving/A Political Act

The last time I was in Leeds was 1983. I was appearing in a play at Leeds Playhouse, playing a disruptive prisoner in a play about the Hull prison riots, which in its own way confronted and provoked the audience to consider the prison system. This week I went back to Leeds having been asked to attend a conference at Leeds University on Politics, participation and performance, and provide a voice workshop.

After a thought-provoking keynote on citizenship by Professor Stephen Coleman, an exciting and Intense workshop run by Proper Job Theatre in which we were invited to participate and make decisions on a mythical intense family/political drama followed by a presentation on a young people’s project on exploring elections by Miranda Duffy, I then led people towards some psycho-physical exploration of the voice.

All the opportunities given above enhanced my understanding of the challenges of political theatre in all its forms and whilst I have a strand of my work which has a distinct political focus around devising work, I was there to lead a voice workshop. When preparing the workshop I considered many of the voice exercises I have used and developed over my decades of teaching voice and devising with young people and special interest groups  but I wanted to offer something else. It seemed to me I might be offering tricks or easy-fixes when I felt there was something more fundamental at stake. The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible, in a way that is connected and full of conviction. It is of limited use devising a piece we cannot hear (unless it is meant to be silent). Whîlst we can support groups with multimedia and microphones, the most effective way, if possible, is for them to use their own voice.

Someone said at the end that teaching skills to those who are not usually offered them is a political act in itself. Someone alluded to the fact that business people and lecturers are offered skills like voice whereas those not in so privileged positions are bypassed. It makes them feel that these skills are not for them.

Yet even more than effective and committed speech, the one area of exercise which is absolutely fundamental to community, theatre and political action is Michael Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. As Professor Jonathan Pitches, who gave a response to the day suggested, radiating and receiving has a political dimension because you share and integrate a response on a fundamental level. You feel an understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation. It is something I too believe. We spent a good deal of my strand of the workshop working with radiating and receiving to the group and our partners. (As Professor Coleman said in his keynote address, “citizenship is not something that happens alone.” )

So just as teaching voice requires both technical and imaginative development through exercises, perhaps political theatrical engagement requires us to generate not only how we feel about civic and personal qualities we might deem vital for action, it also needs us to develop a deep connection with our body, voice, feelings and imagination to give these qualities a holistic and truly revolutionary dynamic. Perhaps politics has a more spiritual dimension than we might immediately think. For me, without actually touching base with the intangible power of theatre (which Voice and Chekhov technique provoke in abundance) we are missing a chance to make the elemental change that people want and need on all levels.

Having said this, I am not denying the huge material challenges which quash artistic endeavours deemed ‘political’ and make them suspicious to schools and funders. Those who are suspicious fail to realise that all performance is pushing an agenda, for what is an agenda but a view of life? Of course if the agenda is rammed down an audience’s throat it is probably going to be unconvincing, unless you already agree with it, and the probability is it will not be great art. Unless it presents the polarities of the argument it is not empowering, merely proselytising.

Looking at all the threads which knitted themselves in this conference, we seemed to be exploring how theatre empowers people directly; perhaps that is what ‘defines ‘political’. If theatre does not empower or enlighten, well, what use is it?

There was talk about the dynamics of university attitudes to performance and those of the conservatoire training. Much conservatoire training has a kind of attitude I call “training the racehorse”, in other words preparing the student for ‘the business”. If you are already preparing actors for this capitalist enterprise, you are unlikely to encourage political engagement in your students. For me, the nature of theatre education has to change to break this mould. However, the alternative to the “racehorse” model is the more academic approach offered in third level with a lot less contact hours. This is not really adequate either; performance expertise can not be magicked up in a few hours, not if you want to encourage a deep learning; nor is it fully effective as research, unless you are practically proficient in the first place.

One thing is for sure: political theatre in the broadest sense has to be empowering for audiences, participants and actors alike. Chekhov said you have to have a view; how do you want your audience to feel at the end of a play? This view does not have to be polemical but it needs to have a direction. There has to be something or why bother? As artists we have to be responsible.

Thanks to everyone at the conference and to Doctor Sarah Weston for organising it. It gave me a lot to think about.

Witness: changing attitudes through theatre.

The other day I went to see a show called Witness written by Cecilia Parkert translated by Kevin Halliwell and performed by Andrea Kelly. It was a work-in-progress soon to be seen in full production in Galway Theatre Festival. She had been invited by the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway to perform this hard hitting 50 minute one person show for stuðents. The play concerns a translator working in Sweden during investigations of the war in Bosnia in the 90s.

 It was performed in a lecture theatre with no lighting or costume. The lecture theatre venue enhanced the power of the piece as there was no set, music or costume cushion to distance us from the action .

The translator character is to be disciplined by a panel after ‘crossing a line’ with one of the interviewees, a victim of atrocities. We the audience are the panel. During the course of this play there were a number of horrific stories that the translator had to translate for the therapist/counsellor interviewing the victims of these war crimes. Translation became an incredibly powerful theatrical metaphor as we the audience tried to deal with these tales of brutality and torture. Like the translator, we have to listen to acts of torture, dismemberment , degradation and murder. It made me question what it was to listen to these stories and what was the value of it?
After all I was not empathising directly with the real person to whom these horrors had occurred but to a character who witnessed these horrors. And then again this character with whom I was asked to sympathise was not the real translator at all but an actress speaking the lines of a writer who may or may not have had the experience of the translator in the first place.

To hear a person speak these tales of horror and human cruelty though, for me had phenomenal power. And somehow it did not matter that the stories were not told by the actual person, but that they were spoken live, that they were filling the energy in the air of that lecture theatre which created images and forced me to deal with them. The words seemed to be saying to me, ”These things are true. They happened. Deal with them.”

I remember decades ago, meeting a man in a pub in London who had been tortured in Uganda. I could not believe I was speaking to a man who had actually been tortured. He showed me where his torturers had driven nails into his hands. He told when he heard of his release he did not eat for days until he was out of prison, for fear they would poison him so he would not be able to incriminate his torturers later. I thought about him when I watched this play.

I thought about my own father who witnessed some true horrors until he escaped Nazi occupied Austria, and my grandmother who died in a concentration camp.

This play reminded me of these things, and then I thought, the war described in this play happened in what is now the EU, not that far away. It was terrifying to realise this. I thought of how valuable theatre was, how it could make horror just about bearable so we could really consider it; really consider how fragile our civilisation actually is; consider what we must do to keep it afloat.
On the other hand without a very interesting discussion, I do not think I would like to have been thrown out into the afternoon. There was a lot of heaviness, pain and complexity to digest.

People often ask, “Does theatre change anything?”,. Is it SO powerful that it can make laws, change attitudes? I think it can but paradoxically the more liberal society and the less popular a medium the theatre becomes the less power it seems to have. Television too seems to be losing its power. When I was a teenager in the 70s, watching TV. plays and films in my grandparents’ house, homosexuality, adultery, issues of conscience, the role of education in society and deep questions about faith and religion could actually end up in your own living room and even sometimes be discussed became something of a reality. It was a truly democratising influence. Theatre of course is more elitist, less accessible, both because we have to go out to it, and also because it has a class stigma attached to it.

One way in which theatre does change people strongly is through the participants. In the Galway Cuirt Festival in 2002 Galway Youth Theatre presented a play I had written and directed. It was called Alien Nation and concerned racism in Ireland , just beginning to become more overt. I was keen to meet an asylum seeker and through the One World Centre I met a young Roma woman. I based one of the characters upon her and though the character I created was younger than her she helped to keep the story authentic, and the young actress who played ‘her’ met her and heard her story . On the day of the first performance the young asylum seeker was to be guest of honour. I had a phone call to say the authorities had deported her that morning. I discussed this with the young actors and we talked a little about whether art can change anything . I decided that I would make a short speech about it before the play began. I am sure this had a strong impact on the audience as it did on the actors. But nonetheless the young woman was still on the plane.

It is hard to change things. Generally through art you can give people a different perspective, and rather like Witness remind us of the fact that regimes are corrupt and that humanity, in addition to being a well of kindness can also be unspeakably and unbelievably cruel. It is important that we face up to this reality as I felt myself doing as I listened to these unspeakable stories , and make me resolved to do something about it, in some way shape or form. I think that all drama should transform us or it is merely a diversion. Witness certainly succeeded in doing that.