Theatre for Social Change

This week’s column is inspired by current events, and by a nascent sense of social agency and responsibility, one which I can honestly say I have never felt before. As such, this column is deeply personal, and writing it has prompted some real introspection.

How can theater and performance contribute to social change? How do we even respond to this question? The answer is not in a theory or a model. It might not even be in historical precedent, because the meaning of “change” is so dependent on the particular social setting and the issues at hand.

To figure out how theater/performance can produce social change, we have to shut up and figure it out for ourselves through action. Deconstruction, a process so highly prized at these colleges, is only part of a process. We need to replace pure intellectualizing with careful planning. We have to go out and make work that attempts to change things. We might fail for a long time.

But if we know our aims, and if we suit our work to the available resources and the particular obstacles facing us, we can make theater that is socially effective.

There is proof for this and we don’t have to look very far.

In recent years, a group of current female Pitzer students has worked with women at PROTOTYPES. PROTOTYPES is a Southern California organization providing care to individuals dealing with issues including drug addiction, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, and mental illness. The students went to the local center in Pomona and led autobiographical writing exercises. If they so desired, the women at the center wrote monologues on their personal experiences, which they swapped. The women then performed the monologues both at the center and at Pitzer. Audiences included PROTOTYPES staff members, family members, and 5C students and faculty. Hearing and discussing these stories out loud had an effect on those present, according to Hannah Michahelles PZ ’12, a leader of the project. Far beyond catharsis, they encouraged audience members to critically reflect on their own experiences, their own sense of self, and look at the people next to them in a different way.

Just last semester, Julia Pashall PZ ’12 and Rebecca Karpovsky SC ’11 organized Fantastische!, a queer burlesque. The performance was cabaret-style, consisting of 12 original acts developed over the rehearsal process. Among its many aims, it was about “self-growth and self-love,” Pashall said. Accordingly, if you’re at all curious, please speak to anyone who performed in it or saw it. You will get a sense of the ways in which being present at the burlesque was a highly meaningful, even formative experience. It was true theater that nurtured social change. If you’re encouraged, please join in. The next burlesque goes up at the end of the semester, and there will be a new one developed in the spring.

These are just two examples of local performance initiatives. They represent the wealth of meanings and forms that “theater for social change” can take. They should also underscore that the questions posed at the beginning of this column are not just relevant to the arts as performative disciplines. Literally, they’re social and political questions. Art (whatever that term signifies) is not separate from social relations and conditions. This isn’t some self-important, grandiose declaration. It’s true. When we place art on some depoliticized, universal, aesthetic plane, we destroy its potential to critique. Socially, it becomes nothing more than a tool for perpetuating existing inequalities.

If we’re not guilty of depoliticizing art, we’re certainly guilty, if unintentionally, of neutering its potential to effect social change. Professor April Mayes of the Pomona History Department said it well in one of her classes: any protest that relies too heavily on denouncing the immoral aspects of inequality will fail to create real change. And if it does not fail, it is still vastly inferior to action aimed specifically at altering social or material conditions. Documentaries on the 2008 financial collapse may serve as accessible, if slightly sanctimonious forms of critique. But they pale in comparison to the act of individuals removing their money from the network of major banks and putting it in local credit unions.

What does this mean for our art? It means we can’t make it just about expressing moral outrage, even if it’s over good causes. Arguing morals with immoral people won’t get you far. Heck, even arguing morals with people of different values won’t get you far. It cannot end with discussion, as it so often does. The Herald in the play Marat/Sade is absolutely right: “talk is cheap / the price of action is colossal.” For our art to be productive, we have to aim it at that much more difficult, frustrating, and meaningful goal of change. And change in all senses of the word. Personal, local, national, global. How we think, how we form our own sense of self, how we interact with others on a daily basis. Our impulses, our political relations, our material resources.

Now I’ll put my money where my mouth is. For those of you reading this hot off the press at Friday morning breakfast, be on the lookout midday on Pomona’s campus for some home-cooked art-protest. Quite literally, you will decide whether it’s effective.

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