Political Literacy in the Theatre

Eastbound Theatre’s production of “November)

Eastbound Theatre’s production of “November)

C. Austin Hill

So frequently in my rehearsal rooms, or in my classrooms, I hear theatre artists decry politics.

There seems to be an idea that one must learn their craft in a hermetically sealed bubble, lest the influences of the banal and mundane workings of the outside world impose themselves upon the art.  In the theatre, though, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The fact is that ALL theatre is political.  

The Public Theatre’s Oskar Eustis has said that it can be no coincidence that theatre and democracy were invented in at the same time.  He says “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”.

As such, the theatre needs to constantly aware of those very needs, points of view, and conversations.

The theatre, however, isn’t an entity of its own…it needs practitioners to operate in the best interest of the public. 

I’m not even talking exclusively about overtly political theatre—the works of David Hare, for example—nor do I propose that theatres produce only (or even frequently) plays addressing social issues.  I mean to state that EVERY SINGLE piece of theatre is political.  Every production speaks to a public (or we should hope that it does), and every programming choice should be made with this in mind.  I tell my Intro to Theatre students that, as a theatre artist, I am consciously aware of my job to build a bridge between the intentions of the playwright (as best I can interpret them) and the meaning of those intentions to my perceived audience—how I can make the material BEST resonate in the hearts and minds of theatregoers. 

Therefore, as theatre artists—regardless of what part of the industry we operate within—we have a responsibility to be (or to become and stay) politically literate.  Your opinions don’t need to match my opinions, your issues don’t need to be my issues…but you have a responsibility to the art form to HAVE opinions and issues.  It is unacceptable for a theatre practitioner to be unaware of current events—even if they are working on a period production.

We need to know how an individual word in a production may resonate differently today than it did yesterday.  How much more visceral is the word “refugee” now than it was a month or two ago?  How much more loaded are ideas of freedom, or marriage, or race-relations, or police violence, or religiosity now than they were at other times?  If you are making theatre, you need to know what is up.