- Voicing Our Dissent:Theatre and Community after the Wisconsin Uprising
Beginning 14 February 2011, a series of protests roiled the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, centered at the state capitol. Quickly dubbed the Wisconsin Uprising, the protests were a coordinated response to the Budget Repair Bill, and were followed by the attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker. The uprising created an opportunity for disparate groups to work toward a common goal. In a state known as much for its leftist activism (Wisconsin was the first state to recognize state employees’ unions) as for its right-wing figureheads (this is, after all, the state of Joseph McCarthy), the uprising caught the nation’s attention for weeks as thousands of protesters flooded Madison. These protests rekindled a long-dormant relationship between the activist community and the academy.1 As artists and academics, we, the authors, struggled to find our place in this tumultuous and exhilarating political landscape.
Following the failed recall efforts, the authors of this essay were approached by Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative2 to collaborate on a production of Voices of a People’s History of the United States, staged at Broom Street Theatre in the summer of 2013. This production was a fundraiser for Rainbow3 and a collaborative venture between artists and activists. Colin Gillis produced the play; Sandy Peterson and Jeff Casey (the coauthors of this essay) co-directed; and Andy Gricevich assistant produced and performed the live music. The ensemble cast included a range of actors, some professionally trained and others who had no previous acting experience.4 An important goal of this production was to join the resources and activist spirit of Rainbow with the professional theatrical talent of students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison), and to thereby create a lasting working relationship between the academy and community activists. Because half of our production team came to the project from “theatre as activism” and the other half from “activism as theatre,” we met in the middle somewhere. The entire production team wanted to recapture the coalition spirit and commitment to ongoing dissent that the uprising had created, and to forge a lasting infrastructure for such dissent.
Voices of a People’s History is an anthology of radical American leftist texts from the colonial period to the early twenty-first century, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. (Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States.) The texts in the anthology are often adapted and performed as a series of successive monologues. Indeed, the Voices of a People’s History of the United States Foundation, which supervises the performance rights for Voices, refers on its webpage to the performances exclusively as “readings” (“Background”).5 The most famous performances of Voices have been readings in the strictest sense; for example, the History Channel documentary The People Speak includes performances done in the reading style: actors presenting monologues with scripts in hand. Similarly, the foundation, working with partners in New York City, produced a tenth anniversary performance structured as a reading. Such minimalist readings, in the hands of accomplished actors, can be surprisingly powerful.6 Nevertheless, we decided to differentiate our [End Page 103] approach, first by interweaving the monologues (rather than having them presented successively), and second by asking the actors to perform their parts more “theatrically” by memorizing the script and executing complex blocking.
We took this approach to avoid an inherent danger in using Voices as a source text: that the performance can become elegiac, a reverential recitation of the American Left’s “greatest hits.” Performing in the wake of the Wisconsin Uprising and the failed recall attempt only increased the temptation to use nostalgia to displace despair as we looked back on the Left’s heroic past. Everyone on the production team wanted to avoid this outcome. Our desire was to not let one lost battle be the end of the war. The initial protests were performances of community and solidarity; they were politics performed, and we wanted to perform our politics—not in the sense of asserting a political ideology, but rather of performing our political commitment to collective...