- “The Every 28 Hours Plays” and “After Orlando”: Networked, Rapid-Response, Collective Theatre Action—New Forms for a New Age
“The nature of an emergency dictates a response.”—Arlene Goldbard1
Naming both “natural” disasters such as hurricanes and “civil” disasters such as gun violence and police brutality, the US Department of Culture’s guide Art Became the Oxygen specifically details the role of arts in responding to emergencies. Drawing from the insights of crisis-management fields, they describe how artists form a “third line” of support to those in crisis, using storytelling and culture to cultivate allies and resources for communities in need on the “first line.”2 As we find ourselves increasingly lurching from crisis to crisis, theatre-makers are innovating new artistic forms and producing practices that leverage networks and foster dialogue through performance. Some refer to such work as “rapid-response” theatre. In the tradition of the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Living Newspapers, plays are created quickly with minimal production values in order to disseminate a story, often literally ripped from the headlines. However, more than simply capturing a contemporary moment, now artists are also enacting mobilizing strategies, community-building, and collaborative methods that constitute an innovative form of networked, collective theatre action.
Projects like “The Every 28 Hours Plays” and “After Orlando” represent a significant new trend using short-form drama to respond to the breakneck speed of the news cycle and construct a space for both a deep and wide community conversation. This note 1) introduces both of these projects and their original impulses and history; 2) explores this emerging genre of theatrical protest: the networked, rapid-response, collective-theatre action; and 3) brings together commentary about six different productions at various university campuses that staged either The Every 28 Hours Plays or After Orlando. Building on the lively roundtable discussions of two sessions in Las Vegas at ATHE 2017, we note that such productions provide significant educational opportunities for student actors, directors, and producers; encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and community partnerships; and construct spaces for deep dialogue, consciousness-raising, and community-building. As evidenced by each contribution, the performance of these plays within different university contexts extends and develops conversations beyond the immediate crisis to bear witness to injustices and construct multiple points of entry for social action. As a necessary step in commemorating, healing, and promoting action, the plays magnify the voices of those who have been silenced and allow for empathy in cultivating a community of allies.
As mentioned above, the FTP’s Living Newspapers provide an important precedent for the rapid-response, networked, collective theatre actions. Living Newspaper units in the 1930s organized themselves like a news bureau to create a structure for US artists to quickly represent pressing stories.3 As Jordana Cox notes, their work spoke not only to a concrete public, but called for an “imagined community” as well (301–2). The FTP also consciously used its networks to foster simultaneous discussions at the same time across different geographic spaces.4 Cox notes how Living Newspapers took hold during a moment of a “fraught relationship between mass media and democracy” (302), [End Page 159] calling on audiences as concerned citizens to deliberate the issues of the day. Augusto Boal’s Newspaper Theatre, formulated in the Arena Theatre of 1970s Brazil, is another precedent, a kind of “ideological warm up” (225) for the actor; it uses Brechtian techniques to dramatize current events in short sketches to uncover biases and explore multiple perspectives left out by journalists in an authoritarian society.5
Other precedents of rapid-response, networked, collective theatre action include productions like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and Tectonic Theatre’s The Laramie Project. Although not short-form drama, their dramaturgical structure portrays a controversial event or issue from multiple perspectives, based on interviews and research. These productions started in professional theatre.6 Interestingly, they soon discovered how the dramaturgy facilitated the opportunity to move performances beyond that setting to enact mobilization and community-building around the process of performance in educational and community settings. In both, a website provides a kind of unifying frame, bringing local efforts...