Teaching, Learning, and Making Theatre in a Time of Crisis

C. Austin Hill

Arben Celi / Reuters

It’s been a difficult week.  From terror in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad to racial tensions at the University of Missouri and other college campuses nationwide…it’s been a difficult week.  When things get this hard and this stressful, I think back to a question someone asked me once when I was an undergraduate.  “Why,” they asked,  “when there are people starving, and terrorists, and police brutality, and injustice, and racism, and political upheavals, and homeless people, and so many other terrible things, WHY would you think THEATRE is important?!?”  My answer then is the same as my answer now.  Theatre is important specifically BECAUSE of all of those things. 

Some time ago, in one of my previous pieces for OnStage, before I got caught up in the rigors of producing, directing, and technical directing a world premiere production of a play by a New York Times bestselling author (it went very well, by the way), I wrote about the need for politically literate theatre artists.  I quoted Oskar Eustis, saying “I think that theater is the democratic art—it's no mistake that they were invented in the same city in the same decade. It's the proper place to exercise democratic virtue, for the contesting of different points of view, identifying with other people, what citizens need” (http://www.timeout.com/chicago/theater/angels-butterflies-oskar-eustis-and-david-henry-hwang-at-the-u-of-c).  In that post I focused on the first half of Eustis’ quote, but in a time of crisis—and this is certainly one of those—I’d like to discuss the second half of this quote. 

The theatre, Eustis says, isn’t just a place for the “contesting of different points of view” or of finding commonalities between ideologies or perspectives…it’s the proper place.  And, of course, Eustis is correct.  The theatre was invented as a public forum for the exploration of thought and politics.  Though theatre has served different purposes throughout history, that position of (willing or unwilling) public airing-ground for debate and philosophy has always remained.  What makes theatre so important though, is that it affords us access to crisis in ways that other mediums cannot.

A great play (even a not-so-great play) can show us multiple sides of an argument—the centerpiece of what Eustis means in calling theatre the democratic art.  We get causes AND effects, we see plans and results, we watch myriad perspectives.  And we get all of this in the language of human emotion and thought.  Great theatre makes us think and feel, it helps us, perhaps, to know our enemies as people—to understand their thoughts, their objectives, their dreams, and their desires.  And, if we can understand the humanity in those who oppose us, perhaps we can seek the inevitable common ground.

College theatre companies play an incredible role in this negotiation of humanity.  In America, they were born from elocution departments as a supplement to debate classes.  Early American theatre students learned rhetoric and debate to understand argumentation, and acting and playwriting to get a grasp on emotion and psychology.  If we try hard—and if we are brave—as theatre teachers and learners, we can use the theatre as our avenue to interrogate the crises that exist in our world. 

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre's ‘The Laramie Project,’  at the Nafe Katter Theatre in Storrs. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

This past week, in my Dramatic Literature class (which also counts as a general education literature class, and consequently draws a hearty enrollment with a mixture of theatre majors and others) we discussed Athol Fugard’s play Master Harold…and the Boys.  The play is set (and written) during the Apartheid in South Africa, and provided an excellent opportunity to discuss otherness and institutionalized racism.  It also became a prefect forum to broach the subject of the racial tension at Mizzou.  Some of my students had heard about the protests, and the resignations, and about the terribly racist response to those events, but most of my students had not.  They certainly hadn’t thought about those events in relation to a 33 year-old play set in South Africa.  But discuss we did.  And next week we get Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, where we’ll get to ask difficult questions about history, and those parts of it we’d rather forget.  Perfect timing.

I call upon all of us in this industry to try—as we’re able—to insert ourselves into these difficult conversations.  Let us attempt to help our audiences understand their own pain, their grief, their assumptions, their fears, and their joys.  Theatre has done this before—many times. In 2000, The Laramie Project helped us process and contextualize the death of Matthew Shepard.  Just after 9/11, Broadway’s reopening provided relief to a stunned New York City…and that was good.  The Flea Theatre’s production of Anne Nelson’s The Guys helped us heal, let us cry together, and gave us a language for our grief.  George Takei’s Allegiance is teaching us about an oft-ignored part of American history—the internment of Japanese families during WWII.  Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids is interrogating sexual assault and campus rape culture—and is being performed on campuses throughout the country.

Soon theatre will explore #BlackLivesMatter, and terror in Paris, and homelessness. Theatre will help us to mourn and cry.  Theatre will help us find our people, and understand the humanity in those who oppose us.  Theatre is primed to help us, as a human people, deal with crisis…if we are brave enough to fight the good fight.