A few months ago, the Freedom Dreams conference invited me to be a speaker on a plenary panel called The Power of Art, which asked artist/activists to speak about the role of art in social justice organizing.
A few nights ago, Free Street presented TRACK 13, the latest piece from the Young Fugitives. TRACK 13, created by young artists and activists, eloquently spoke to the pain and the helplessness that many people feel in the face of brutality and oppression perpetrated by the very people who are “supposed” to protect them: the police. The play posed the question: what can making a play really do? And many in the audience shared this (entirely valid) question: what can making theater, or art, or talking about a problem REALLY and ACTUALLY DO to make change? This was the very question I’d wrestled with at the Freedom Dreams conference, facing an audience of activists who were not entirely convinced that art had a valid role in organizing and social change.
I’m no Pollyanna. I’m skeptical about most things, and don’t believe in self-congratulation. But I do believe in theater, and I do believe that there are things the theater can do. So I thought I’d post my comments from the conference here:
I’m a director, a writer, a professor, andthe relatively new Artistic Director of Free Street Theater, which was founded in 1969 and is in it’s 45th season of making work that “challenges where theater belongs and who belongs in a theater.” We make original, ensemble performance from scratch, and have been committed to broad inclusivity and accessibility for decades. We were, if not the first than one of the first, racially integrated theater companies in Chicago, and probably the first to think systematically about the barriers that separate us from living “authentic” or “free” lives – the name Free Street refers not just to our commitment to offering free programs in unconventional public spaces like streets but to the idea that there is something about creating theater as a community, in a community, that uniquely asks us to reckon with our human selves , to acknowledge and honor ourselves as individuals, to wrestle with being more honest, more open, and to remember that we exist within and are accountable to a larger community. I’ll talk about that again in a moment.
It is no secret to any of us that we are living in a deeply segregated city, a city that faces real structural problems, a city that seems to repeatedly enact brutal and dehumanizing policies. I don’t need to cite statistics about education, incarceration, concentration of wealth , jobs, resources – this is so much of what we are talking about elsewhere at this conference but I’m bringing it up to point to why I exist in an almost constant state of fury about the state of Chicago Theater. Don’t get me wrong. I love theater. I believe in theater. I have invested over 25 years of my life to making theater at the expense of other forms of organizing or artistic practice because I believe it matters, because I believe it can do something other kinds of art can’t. So I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the way that Chicago theater replicates Chicago’s segregation, the way that of almost 300 companies in Chicago, almost all are all-white and concentrated on the northeast side, the way that even diverse companies are in the business of representing the Other, which is very different than including “the Other,” the way that if we think this doesn’t matter we should remember that Chicago has the 3rd largest arts economy in the country and that 74% of all the people making money from the arts are white and college-educated. Seems like not only are our stories not getting told, somebody else is getting paid to not tell them.
But it doesn’t matter. It matters, but, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care about putting on “a play.” I mean –I am a director. I do care a lot about aesthetics, and I do believe in making work that honors the story it wants to tell by investing in the quality of that story telling. I don’t just write something on a napkin and put it up on the stage. In fact, I don’t write, at least not by myself – I facilitate a process where we all create together. And honestly, what happens on the stage may be the very least of what theater can do, or why it can matter as part of our activist strategy, our freedom dreaming. Because here’s what I believe:
1.) Theater is a live act, a communal offering. It requires us to be in a space together. Let’s not forget that itself, that alone, can be radical, just being together.
2.) Theater is an empathetic art. It asks us not just to think, but to feel, to get in touch with our feelingsand the feelings of others, to remember the human story in every issue.
3.) Theater allows for multiple-perspectives, for putting lots of different conversations together in ways that overlap and juxtapose. No one has to be right. We can start by being together, by listening.
4.)Theater is a time based art. When the show must go on, the show must go on. It’s time. The audience is waiting. So working together to make a show requires us to also learn how to work together as a community towards a goal – remember we don’t have to agree (yet) to learn to work together.
5.) Theater allows us to tell stories about the world as it is – our stories, our real ones, our complicated ones – but it also allows us to imagine the world as we want it to be, to create, even for a short time, a version of the world we are working towards. Theater can represent, it can critique, and it can help us imagine, help us practice, help us enact.
6.) Theater is something we all already have the resources to do. We can’t all pick up a camera and make a movie, but there isn’t a one of us in this room that doesn’t know how to tell a story or, at very least, recognize when we think a story is working or not. If you’ve ever lied, if you’ve ever gossiped, if you ever told a joke, you’ve already started rehearsing. You have the goods. We have the goods. There’s something we can do together.
7.) Theater is fun. Half of it is playing games. I believe that organizing is serious work but sometimes it is nice to just act stupid sometimes, and not in a self-destructive way, but in a I’m almost 40 but I can still play tag kind of way. Theater demands we breathe, that we settle into ourselves. This isn’t the same as being fun, but self-care and joy is necessary if we want to be able to keep going.
8.) Theater can happen anywhere – on streets, in schools, at meetings, in board rooms, even in theaters (that a paraphrase of the great Augusto Boal). That means theater offers us the opportunity to take a message to a lot of different audiences in a lot of different spaces – and the spectacle or storytelling of theater might get someone’s attention in a way that a bullhorn might not.
9.) Theater requires an audience, so it can be a great way of building community around a social change issue. People come for the show, stay for the organizing strategy.
10.) Finally, The struggle is real, it is exhausting and it is different for all of us. The act of being live together, of listening to each other’s stories, of trying to feel someone’s point of view, can remind us that we are not alone. You are here. I am here. We are here. Together. What are we going to do?