The Way Forward: A Note to the Theatre Community in response to the 2016 Election

C. Austin Hill

  • Ohio Columnist

My dearest children, family members, students, friends, and colleagues—

“Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond; let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?” 

Like many of you, I woke this morning to a world I do not recognize.  I woke to a world that I refused to believe was possible. And I am not okay. Not yet.  Like many of you I am scared, and angry, and confused, and hurt.  Like many of you I lay awake long into the night trying to figure out how to move forward into this frightening new world.  I knew that this morning I would have to look my children in the eye and tell them the results of the vote…that I would have to comfort them as they sobbed and expressed their fear and anger, and I knew that I would be lying if I told them it would all magically be alright.  It won’t be alright. Not without some work.  I knew that I would have to look into the eyes of my amazing college students who now see nothing but danger everywhere they look. I decided to prepare a statement to read to my students—then I decided that I wanted to address our whole incredible, diverse, compassionate, wonderful community.

Please don’t misunderstand this as a message ONLY for the liberal-minded among you, these thoughts are for everyone that will take the time to read them—don’t forget that no matter how you voted last night, HALF of the population of the US voted against you.  My dear friends, we have some work to do.

In trying to stumble through these thoughts I realized that I already knew how we, as a nation, and as a theatre community, can move forward and create change.  The answer is the theatre.  Ours is an art form devoted to the creation of empathy, compassion, and humanity.  In order to do her job, an actor must connect with the feelings of someone else—AND make the audience connect with that character.  What’s missing right now, and what will be integral to fending off the demons ahead over the next four years, is empathy.  We can do that.  We must. 

The world needs the theatre more now than it ever has before.  We need to tell the stories of those whose voices are being silenced. We need to fight fictional battles in hopes of circumventing actual ones.  As a theatre historian and a professor, I find myself on the front lines of the war for compassion that we must now wage.  I teach future theatre artists and make art myself.  I also am charged with the dissemination of information, and the protection of the past, and I can tell you that this isn’t the first time that theatre has had to lead the war of humanity in this world.  Some of the greatest theatres artists were forged in eras of the greatest oppression.  The list is immense, but it includes the likes of Aristophanes, Terrence, Hrotsvitha, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Moliere, Sheridan, Aphra Behn, Vaclav Havel, Dario Fo, Franca Rame, Caryl Churchill, Brian Friel, Lady Augusta Gregory, WB Yeats, JM Synge, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Amiri Baracka, and Bertolt Brecht.  When human times have been toughest, theatre has exploded and thrived.

The American experiment has always included a hearty dose of resistance to the oppressors, a strong undercurrent of rebellion in the face of hegemonic rule, and a willingness to stand up for those whose voices aren’t being heard or taken seriously.  This all falls squarely into the realm of what we, as theatre artists, do best.

While I know that it’s tempting to give up, or hide, (or gloat), please don’t.  Difficult times demand a range of responses, and the theatre is poised to give them.  As I think about my own production schedule over the next few months, I’m struck by how much difference I will be able to make through my art.  At the moment, I’ve taken over the direction of a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for a friend and colleague who was recently taken ill.  The show opens next week, and I simply can’t think of a better reason to insist upon “tragedy tomorrow, COMEDY tonight.” Then, after the first of the year, I’m directing a little-known German political satire by Ernst Toller called NO MORE PEACE! about the aftermath of a heavenly bet between St. Francis (who insists man is peaceful) and Napoleon (who insists man is warlike)—with depictions of the rise of a fascist dictator who insists on (upon other things) locking up all foreigners, I am floored at the timing.  Then, in spring, I’m helming Hairspray…the ultimate battle between the way things have been and the way they should go—with hard questions about just whose lives, exactly, matter.  My dear friends, if one man can ask that many questions, and demand that many answers, through the theatre in 6 short months, just IMAGINE what this community is capable of over the next 4 years!

Please do not despair.  Instead, fight.  Fight for love. Fight for compassion. Fight for humanity. Fight to ensure that EVERY person in this country is seen as whole and human.  And above all, fight for empathy.  Let us all use our passion for this art form to take a stand—loud and brave—against walls, and in favor of bridges.

Screw your courage to the sticking place. We can make a difference.