How Artists in Theatre Can Be More Influential Than Politicians
Anthony J. Piccione
- New York Columnist
Next week, the United States will elect a new president, and I’m sure many people reading this are quite excited for that to happen, if only to catch a break from seeing quite so many political posts in their news feeds. I know many others in the theatre community who probably feel the same way. Indeed, many people I know in theatre would probably rather just read posts about things such as…well, theatre, as much as they may care about the election, or the issues it would impact. After all, theatre is what we all live for, isn’t it? Obviously, that’s not to say that what’s going on in the world doesn’t matter. Of course it matters, especially to those of us who value issues such as the right to freedom of artistic expression, or additional government funding that is essential to having an industry for artists to thrive in.
However, there’s a very good reason for us to stay focused on theatre, and it directly relates to what I’m talking about. If you’re an artist – whether you are an actor, a writer, a dancer, a director, etc. – you can play a much bigger role at shaping the course of current affairs – and by extension, the course of history – than you might realize. So if any of us want to make a positive change in the world, the performing arts is easily the best means we have to do so.
I’m sure a few of you might scoff, at such a seemingly naïve suggestion. After all, as much as artists – or citizens, in general – may make clear that they want something, it is public officials – who, for the most part, seem more disconnected from the public than ever – that ultimately get to decide what types of changes, if any, are made in government, whether the people want them or not.
Technically, that may be true. Yet while government officials may ultimately be the ones who get the final say, on such matters, one must not overlook the significant role that artists have played toward pushing them toward significant changes which might not have happened, otherwise. In democratic societies, it has often been a result of fear of becoming unpopular – largely driven by turns in public opinion shaped by those in the arts and in pop culture – that have led our leaders to making changes that they might not have otherwise done. In more authoritarian societies, it is often the boldest and most rebellious of artists that have played a significant role in calling out and exposing such governments for their evil deeds, and ultimately, helping to bring them down.
It is artists who have played a significant role in changing the tide of public opinion toward a better society, and thus, have helped lead government in the direction of some of the biggest changes in history. Throughout history, there have been plenty of examples that show this to be true, in theatre and elsewhere.
Keep in mind that I’m not simply referring to some of the more modest examples of some notable artists and entertainers campaigning for politicians. We all know how every famous artist and entertainer out there – from Justin Timberlake to Jay Z, from Stephen King to J.K. Rowling, and everyone in between – seems to have an opinion on this year’s U.S. elections. With all due respect to such individuals, those essentially amount to product endorsements, compared to what I refer to.
I’m thinking more along the lines of the artists who rebelled against fascism and authoritarianism in the early-20th century, at a time when it was on the rise, and people who dared to speak out that were putting not just their careers, but their lives, on the line. Or the artists in the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom used their roles in society to protest against war and to fight for civil rights, not unlike how some have tried to do in the early part of this century.Indeed, there are still quite a few examples today, with many social and political causes in the modern era – from immigration and global terrorism to police brutality and economic inequality – continuing to take center stage throughout many new shows.
Art has played a crucial role in some of the biggest struggles for freedom and equality in history, and in shaping the direction that they take. Theatre has been no exception. There is plenty of historical precedent for art to get people thinking about important topics that they might otherwise be ignoring, and for artists – including those in the theatre community – using their positions to push for positive change in society.
Despite what some might believe, theatre is capable of playing a larger role in shaping the public debate around the most important issues of our time. This has been true in the past, and it can – and must – be true in the future, as well.
I understand why some people might be more cynical toward this point of view, especially considering how very little good seems to be coming from most politicians, nowadays. Yet that is no excuse to give up trying to speak out in the best way we are able to – by using our positions as artists – especially when history tells us that that’s how much real change actually comes about, as slowly as it may come.
If those of us in the arts community give that up now, it only guarantees that positive change will never come, because that’s where much of the public pressure seems to come from.So regardless of who our next president may be – whether it’s Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or by some divine miracle, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein – I hope that all of us in the theatre community never lose sight of that.
In future columns, I intend to delve deeper into this topic, and to talk further about how theatre has been – and can still be– a force for major social and political change in the world. But for now, I hope others will start thinking about this, and I hope during the next four years – and beyond – people do what they can to try and get our leaders to do the right thing, and if necessary, to call them out for any horrible things they may try to do.
If anyone has any thoughts on this topic they’d like to share, please feel free to post them in the comments section, and perhaps they will become the subject of a future column.
This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist based in New York City.
To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to follow him on Facebook(www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage) and on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione).