Theatre as a Civic Duty
Regardless the intent of those making it, all theatre is political. Whether discussed in the rehearsal room or not, our work will be perceived by an audience with a miasma of beliefs, who will each instill their own notions on our narratives in the theatre. That is how it should be. We want our audiences to engage with our art and take away something new.
This type of heightened personal engagement gives us a responsibility to tell truth, a kind of civic duty to others, to our audiences. The relationship between art and civics has always been paramount in my process creating theatre. I even sense that both the definitions of art and civics blend into some form of telling stories ‘by the people, for the people.’ I am writing to suggest that if we can fund and advocate for theatre with this huge responsibility in mind, the theatre we make and teach can, in turn, help pave the way for positive change in the United States.
Indeed, there is precedent for valuing the American theater in such a way.
We can look to the progressive legislation that swept through our nation in the 1930s. In 1935, the Work Projects Administration organized the Federal Theatre Project which employed thousands of theatre artists directly, created about 1,200 productions, launched notable careers and inspired millions of Americans in just a four-year administration. The Federal Theatre Project framed the narrative that theatre was instrumental to a thriving US economy and a distinctly American popular culture that nourished a recovering society. It is no coincidence that the Golden Era of Broadway flourished in the following decade, with record attendances at Broadway theaters, the establishment of acclaimed acting studios and a boom in landmark American productions.
We presently find ourselves in an America amidst a great recession, a pandemic, a nation awash in racial injustice, economic injustice and facing the domestic threat of a lied-to section of the electorate.
As the new administration seeks to unify the nation, save the economy, and cleanse the national political psyche, theatre-makers have never better been poised to assert their value for creating a communal space for debate anchored in the truth of live performance once it is safe to do so. We may not be meeting in a theatre now to create this work, but perhaps our time and efforts can turn to advocacy and activism for the time being.
It may be a few more months before we find ourselves in those long hours of production meetings and technical rehearsals, but there is work that can be done now to contribute to our work later. Administrators at all levels; Federal, State, local and collegiate institutions are facing huge budgetary challenges, and new approaches are going to be adopted, and then successively implemented. We cannot just leave it to the local community theatre’s volunteer board members, or the LORT theatre’s part-time Grants Writer, or the school’s Theatre Department Head to advocate for funding in our community or university. As a collective of artists, let us engage in the advocacy process that is usually designated to these administrators. We can look up our local budgets or school budgets and say, “you know, we are worth more than that. This theatre brings people together. This theatre promotes racial equity. This theatre provides jobs. This theatre educates and inspires our community.”
I’m not trying to be naïve here. I know that many of our arts administrators have been told ‘no’ time and again when it comes to funding requests. Part of the magic in making live theatre is working with that ‘no’. It often inspires genius. But theaters are permanently closing their doors across this country. The time is calling all of us to assert the innate civic value of theatre so that we continue to have a place to create and inspire. So let’s write some letters together, let’s look at how theaters raise money together, let’s call our elected leaders together and let’s make theatre be a part of this period of recovery.