Can Theatre Change the World?

images“I was going to be in the Army. I chose stand-up comedy in the end. Slightly different.” – Eddie Izzard.

Pause and see what your gut reaction is to this:

“Theater can change the world.”

What do you think of that? Did you nod emphatically and think “right on, brother,” smile indulgently and  think “yeah, that’s nice,” roll your eyes and think “that’s a load of hippie BS,” or just kind of cock your head to one side and ask “uh… what?”

As a teacher who went to a school where social justice was part of it’s mission statement, I did a lot of Theatre for Social justice.  I’ve thought a lot about how or if theatre can change the world.

But, like lots of people, I think a lot about poverty, the environment, international relations, the War On Terror, civil rights, and the economy. And whether or not I totally believe it, I’d certainly like to think I can do something about that professionally as a director and teacher.

In the past couple of years, three rather serious things have happened to what could loosely be called “the world’s theatre community”. In Hungary– the country that has just assumed presidency of the EU, folks – a law has been drafted that, as well as enabling the government to censor newspapers, would give it the power to ban theatre performances, while the country’s parliament looks set to sack the director of its national theatre on the grounds that his work is “obscene, pornographic, anti-national, and anti-Hungarian”. In Belarus, Natalia Koliada, the artistic director of the country’s only free theatre company, has, following the “re-election” of Alexander Lukashenko, been forced to go into hiding, threatened with rape and torture. Then, as reported in Noises Off, the education minister of Iraq has banned the study of theatre altogether in Baghdad’s institute of fine arts. Clearly, their theatre is doing something to scare the government.

Think of a performance you’ve seen that really moved you politically. One that made you feel like you should go out and change the world. Now try to remember how you felt about it two days later. How about two weeks later? Did you do anything in the end? Did you even give money or something to the causes?

My feeling is this: theater, in a very limited setting, can do a wonderful job of conjuring political will. But it typically fails to channel it, meaning it usually fizzles out in the audience’s mind as their daily lives get their attention back. I think this can change.

In a blogpost, writer and director Chris Goode argues that “theatre can change the world, [and] is already doing so”. Clearly the governments of Hungary, Belarus and Iraq share his belief. Theatre is indeed a force to be reckoned with, rather than something that is politely paid lip-service, patted on the head, then quietly cut and ignored.

So, my question is, how do we change the world?

How do you change the world?

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