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Theater 31.3 (2001) 62-93
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How Do You Make Social Change?
Theater asked a number of artists and community activists engaged in theater for social change to respond to the following questions: How can/does theater function as a tool of social change? What kind of theater do you find most effective? What kind of social change do you want to effect? Must form and goals change with the times and sociopolitical conditions? If so, how? Please be as specific as you can and as grandiose as you wish. Here are their replies.
In Praise of Contradiction and Conundrum
All art of every sort changes the world. Perhaps an artist aims at less direct, precise, immediate an effect than a president or legislator or general or banker or activist will have; but more effect, more potency, more agency than the ordinary is inevitably an artist's aspiration, and artists who choose to deny that are simply kidding themselves. Art is not merely contemplation, it is also action, and all action changes the world, at least a little.
I used to think that only explicitly political theater, which openly addressed political subjects and perhaps only addressed such subjects in formally radical, experimental ways, had any hope of being of use to political progress. I no longer believe that. I certainly don't think there's a hierarchy of political efficaciousness according to which one might rank various theatrical aesthetic practices, and no formulae whereby politically useful theater can be created. I enjoy overtly political art, I like to listen to it and watch it, I find the ways it succeeds and the ways it fails fascinating; I always learn something, and frequently the lessons are exhilarating. Work that wears its politics proudly energizes me. Work that speaks clearly, intelligently, with sophistication about a social issue, political problem, or history; work that speaks in a voice I haven't heard, about things I haven't experienced; work by an artist who thinks it's important to point out injustice and oppression--this sort of work teaches me, entertains me, rejoins me with the community I most want to belong to, the part of human society that's politically progressive and actively engaged in making change.
There is a hierarchy at work, especially among critics, who mostly tend to protect their readers from explicitly political work by discounting politics as a proper subject for [End Page 62] the theater and by judging all work with a single criterion: the depth (or more often pseudodepth, depth effect) of the work's psychological investigation. Political talk is tolerated if it doesn't get in the way of the psychological or behavioral, which is presumed to be eternal. A play that explores human behavior and rescues it from the political and historical, which confirms its condition as eternal, essential, unchangeable, is, it is assumed, going to be entertaining to people a thousand years hence, who, having not changed much in a thousand years, will presumably admire the play's thesis, which is that people in a thousand years will not change. Such plays are rewarded; after a thousand years of appreciation, their market value will be immense! Plays that seem soiled by an obsession with the immediate and the contemporary, the changeable and the confusing, are often punished; the future, the Unborn, will not want to see such plays, and the rights and interests of the Unborn must be carefully protected.
And so it's easy to envy or, well, hate the people who write, stage, and perform plays that avoid the explicitly political, to execrate all such theater as being useless at best and dangerously reactionary at worst. But such plays are often very good. They're moving, not manipulative, the good ones are, and to be moved is to be changed...