How Theatre Can Change the World

How Theatre Can Change the World


Theater is not all fun and games. Some of
it, is a lot of it is. Often that’s what gets people into the building in the
first place, which is a good thing. But what happens after that? As it turns out
there’s been great interest in the past century and a half of how performance
can be used as a means for change. You know what I’m talking about, plays about
race, class, gender. A survey of the Western canon of modern drama can serve
as a road map for a marvelous journey through the major political and social
issues of recent times. But what actually makes change happen? Entertainment is a
piece of it, but just a piece. I don’t know how many of you have been
entertained into changing your behavior lately. So we can fold in the other
functions of theater to teach and to move emotionally. Together these three
can interact magically to make change happen.
Well it’s not exactly magic. There’s one crucial ingredient that helps these
three functions affect audiences, which is the main point of this talk. Is it
content? Well Ibsen gave us some wonderful
content 140 years ago with this play, “A Doll’s House.” A condemnation of
contemporary roles of marriage ending with the door slam heard round the world.
But content without engagement leads to nothing. If you saw Ibsen’s play would
you change? Would you think about yourself or society? Or do you merely sit
back and enjoy the story of that poor couple. So theorists and practitioners
have taken up the issue of engagement ever since.
For example there’s Artaud, who came up with a very dramatic theory of visceral
engagement. And of course Brecht who advocated intellectual engagement. And
for a more dramatic example there’s Augusto Boal in his ingenious forum
theatre, a situation with unsatisfying choices is presented for audiences. Do
you get that? The protagonist is cleverly portrayed as incompetent.
Then when the story is told again audience members are invited on to the
space and into the roles of the story replacing the failing characters with
their own solutions to the problems being dramatized. Boal calls it a
rehearsal for life: Audience members actively engaged in brainstorming a
solution to problems using performance. So you want to change the world with
theater? Well good, but don’t stop with just
content and entertainment. Real change requires real engagement and an
understanding of the theories that have come before and a willingness to
continue to experiment and explore. These rules for engagement are your crucial
ingredients for success. Thank you.

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