Art as a Survival Tool Series: V

Speak and Be Known

The theater as a place of personal and social power

Stella adler quote

This blog is the last in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

When pernicious ideas overtake the rules of man, performing arts emerge as an antidote to social ills. Theater, in particular, acts as the literal stage for protesting inequalities, persecution, cruelty, and all manner of governmental power trips from tyranny (Caryl Churchill’s The Mad Forest) to illogical unreasonableness (The Capitol Steps).

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

Theater, as a survival tool, serves as a knife, rope and matches: in any circumstance, theater preserves culture, giving people hope and shelter when all feels lost. In some historic instances, theater allows the voice of the people to survive under censorship, brutality and strange disappearances of significant people (Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman). Theater also allows us to say what can’t be said or talk about difficult subjects. From Greek anti-war works like Lysistrata, operas such as Madame Butterfly that subvert the colonial appropriation of the East by the West to Tony Kushner’s AIDS opus Angels in America, theater history teems with passionate works speaking up and speaking out for people and cultures under the threat (or in the process) of being overpowered.

angels in america

Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer  Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

Writer, poet and music critic Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

One such group making the rounds in America recently is Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group resisting the country’s authoritarian regime under Alexander Lukashenka. Subject to raids, imprisonment, expatriation and beatings in Belarus, the troupe members and audiences who come to see their clandestine performances in such spaces as private apartments and woods persist despite these political and police threats. Their defiance of state-controlled art and subject matter to continue to talk about social issues in Belarus won international support, inspiring documentary filmmaker Madeline Sackler to create Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. The troupe performed their latest work Trash Cuisine in New York this summer, raising awareness about their philosophy of theater being a crucial voice in the cross-talk of society

Despite the growing social reliance on screen technology, theater continues to enervate the human condition precisely because it is immediate, it is in-your-face. There is something undeniably effective in being with living, breathing human beings enacting, feeling and speaking to some piercing truth of the human condition, especially when we ourselves may lack the ability to express it. This way, we can speak and be known—even when it is another speaking for us.

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