The Lab Co-Director Derek Goldman’s opening remarks from the AsideLIVE: Theatre as Politics symposium.
As given by Derek Goldman on February 26, 2018 in The Forum in Sidney Harman Hall.
Thanks to our partners and friends here at Shakespeare Theatre Company who have been longtime collaborators on a whole range of projects, most recently partnering to bring the National Theatre of Ghana’s production of Tennesse Williams’ Ten Blocks on the Camino Real to DC, and I’ve been a part of a number of these AsidesLIVE events and have extraordinary experiences at them so I’m really thrilled to be speaking with you this morning. As I look around, it’s an amazing line up of panelists and discussions who bring many different aspects of our work. We also have students here from a Performance and Politics class that I co-teach with Lab Co-Director Cynthia Schneider at Georgetown, with whom we will be traveling to Cambodia this Friday. And we have the backdrop of the world premiere Noura, a brilliant re-imagining of Ibsen’s Doll’s House set among an Iraqi immigrant family, by Heather Raffo, who all of us at Georgetown have had the privilege of collaborating with closley over the past decade, and of course Hamlet which of course has been the subject of more analysis and more productions and interpretations than virtually any other work in Western literature — a play that is said reflects and absorbs its time and context. This is all a little raw and untested, and I hope to surface a range of thing that can be built upon, challenged, discussed over the next three hours.
Some of you may remember the Graham Greene quote from the novel The Third Man, made famous in the classic film when it was spoken by Orson Welles — and I cannot compete with his delivery, I fear—
“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The basic principle underneath this quote — that hard times make for great art — is a sentiment that we are hearing a lot of lately — but I think holds some deceptively deep and profound truths that get at the large and vital role artists have to play as change makers during dark and polarizing times.
And within this larger framework of the artist’s role, I find its worth us asking the questions — In a world with so many demands on our time and so options from Netflix to podcasts, to restaurants, nightclubs, sports, what does theater particularly have to bring to us now? What is theater good at, and why do we need it right now?
When we look to theater, whether as artists or audience members, what do we seek? A space to give meaning to our struggles? To gather communally? To be less alone? To take refuge? To empathize with others? To connect to the unknowable and to the mythic? To experience the release that laughter provides? To better understand the past? To better understand ourselves? To better understand what we are up against? To have our numbness pierced? To grieve what we have lost? To equip ourselves with tools to navigate or even transform our worlds? To imagine or to rehearse the future?
The longer I work in the theater and the more I experience, the more I find its greatest and deepest powers and virtues are in many ways its simplest. Theater is the most intimately human of artforms. At its core the basic experience of what makes theater vital hasn’t changed that much in 2,500 years—it is arguably one of the aspects of human experience that has undergone the least fundamental change over millennia. Of course, some performances may now take place in modern buildings like this under LED lights and supported by multimedia technology, but relative to the radical decade by decade changes in how we communicate, travel, eat, consume, work, and live, the basic act of gathering for the occasion of performance in a communal place to witness a story shared by other living human beings has remained relatively constant. What has changed radically, even in a relatively short time, I think, is how important it feels to turn off our devices and to gather this way, how much of an antidote it can offer to so much else in our world, and how badly we need it.
Almost 2500 years ago, in 472 BC, the play considered by many the oldest surviving play in the world — Aeschylus’ The Persians — was performed at the Festival Of Dionysos in Athens. The play depicts the aftermath of the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis just 8 years before.
Aeschylus asks his audience to bear witness to and empathize with the ruin and degradation of their adversaries, to see them as fully human. By asking his audience to attend to and to identify with the enemy, Aeschlyus demonstrated that theater can achieve something, which is still quite radical today.
Theater can be a uniquely effective tool breaking down the sense of “us and them.” Our artform is rooted in the art of “stepping into the shoes of the other,” and by extension allows audiences to the same.
Whatever ones’ political leanings are, it’s hardly controversial to say that as we gather this morning, the world is facing extraordinary challenges and extreme polarization locally, nationally, globally — that, to quote Hamlet, the time is out of joint. According to the UNHCR there are currently more than 65 million forced migrants around the world — more than at any other time in human history, poverty and massive disparities of all kinds, climate crises, the rise of hate and intolerance and the erecting of walls and borders, trafficking and modern slavery, radicalization and the rise of violent ideologies, and the rights to freedom of expression being curtailed around the world. As my colleague from The Lab Cynthia Schneider reminds us, repressive governments and extremists understand, often far better than artists themselves, the power of culture the arts, and have throughout history made it a priority to effectively silence those voices .
I think woven into Hamlet itself is Shakespeare’s own belief in the political power of theater and its deep connection to politics — often in performance the players who arrive in Hamlet are treated as a bit of a novelty item in the world of the play, or we think of them as adjacent to its deepest messages — but the evidence shows us that Shakespeare was dead serious about the ways that theater itself could shape political discourse — remember that “the play’s the thing” in which Hamlet catches the conscience of the king.
The reconstruction of the Globe Theater in London is a living reminder of how in Shakespeare’s theater both stage and auditorium are equally illuminated. Performers and public can always see each one another. Shakespeare was presenting deeply political plays in front of those in power as well as the common people or groundlings. Hamlet’s soliloquies were not just private meditations but become public debates.
To offer one resonant example of how Hamlet operates, it has become the most obsessively quoted literary work in Arab politics today and has been appropriated by Arabs as a symbol of secularism, nationalism, or Islamism, depending on the prevailing political mood turning Hamlet into what Margaret Litvin describes as the essential Arab political text in dozens of productions from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait. In the context of the War in Iraq, Hamlet used as a lens in frame in countless editorials in major publications such as the New York Times “whether to take arms against a sea of troubles,” and a number of Iraqi productions picked up on this , including a highly influential adaptation called Forget Hamlet in which the usurping King is depicted as Saddam Hussein, alluding to, as some of you may recall, George W. Bush referred to him as “the guy who tried to kill my Dad.”
In the context of a Women’s Voices Festival, it seems worth mentioning that each of the 2 iconic women in all of Shakespeare — Gertrude and Ophelia—have themselves been the subject of endless volumes and of numerous of their own dramas and spinoffs… and of course the politics of individual productions vary in how much they highlight the women’s agency, or lack thereof, and how they are stifled by a highly patriarchal world — Polonius may often seem doddering and innocuous and windy, but his paternal grip over Ophelia is real and contributes to her decline.
Here in the seat of power that is Washington DC , I often feel that we have tended to have temples of politics and temples of culture that are largely cordoned off from each other. I think that is changing some with more and more politically-themed work, though I also think we are seeing a proliferation of fairly conventional plays about politics and politicians, and should keep in mind that politics operates in theater not just as subject matter but in terms of the form the work and the context of its presentation… Not just the content of what story is told, but how it is told, where it is presented, who has access to it, who is doing the telling, issues of appropriation and authenticity, how the work engages the changing realities of our world…
I love the reminder that performance scholar Jan Cohen Cruz offers that performance is an ongoing process of “call and response.” Productions are not so much fixed products or outcomes, but living breathing entities that are a response to the world around them, and are in turn calls or catalysts that intitate and spark dialogue and lead to other responses.
Heather Raffo’s idea for Noura grew out of the writing workshops that she was doing with Arab American women in New York, in which she shared with them the text of Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House, and was amazed and inspired to discover the degree to which the women found in this 140 year old play from a Norwegian dramatist something of their own story. Just as Doll’s House offered a “call” to which these women responded, these women were part of the “call” to which Heather’s play Noura is a response — but there are many others. The brilliance of Noura is how deeply layered the registers of the political and personal are. The backdrop of a brutal war that reverberates with haunting and unanswered questions and the trauma of countless, fractured lives, the larger drama of immigration, and the more intimate politics of marriage, womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, and personal agency, the continuing struggle of human beings making a home away from home, and the tension between individual choice and upholding the community. It’s worth remembering that Doll’s House itself provoked an extraordinary storm of controversy when it premiered in Denmark in 1879, felt far beyond the arts world but on front pages and society pages around the world. In Germany, the actress playing Nora refused to perform the play as written, saying she would never leave her children!” and Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending in which Nora stays. And both of those versions of the plays stayed in currency for about 20 years.
I just returned Friday night from Bangladesh where I had the privilege of working with some amazing young theater artists from Dhaka and accompanying them into Rohingya refugee camps where they are partnering with aid organizations to use theater as a way of working with a population, in particular the children who were there, who are currently experiencing trauma on a scale that’s almost impossible to absorb or fathom. I was recently in Moscow where I led workshops with hundreds of top young theater artists — and was introduced multiple times as an “American without horns.” Many of the students were genuinely amazed to learn that not only do I not own a gun, but that I was able to go about my daily business in the United States without feeling I needed one.
In the past few years I have traded many of the hours I was formerly spending in rehearsal rooms with professional artists whose life-experience for the most part was relatively like mine, for time witnessing theater’s power in other kinds of spaces—often across sectors, and cultures. Much of this work is in the company of inspiring students and young artists both at Georgetown and around the world who see their role as artists and changemakers as deeply entwined. At The Lab we are fortunate to have a Lab Fellows program with 10 pathbreaking artists from around the world working at the intersection of theater and politics, include refugees from Syria and Palestine as well as artists Cambodia, Colombia, Zimbabwe, etc.
I have come to feel that while at its core theater’s power is in its singular potential to breaking down “us” and them,’ we in the theater have our own stubborn and insidious categories of “us” and “them”—that the theater too often is still a place of quite rigidly felt and practiced hierarchies — a divide we reenforce between work that is good and work that does good. A sense that real art is the domain of people with a certain kind of training and that there is another — usually considered inferior kind of socially-engaged art. But my observation across the many performances I witness in radically different contexts is that the leading theaters and opera houses have both brilliant works that both do good and are good, and just as frequently works that by most people’s standards are neither — works that fail, which I think is one of our prerogatives as artists—and that there is work in prisons, community halls, refugee camps, and our elementary and high schools that actually lives up to the highest promise of what theater can do for us today, just as we can find work in all of those spaces that is merely instrumentalizing, empty, or even that does more harm than good.
I think that even within our artform we are often guilty of existing within bubbles that we unwittingly reinforce rather than maximizing theater’s power to burst them. We are still quite isolationist in our cultural practices, gathering in spaces largely among those like ourselves, and we limit ourselves by making these walls too rigid—by not acknowledging or allowing ourselves to witness the highly varied kinds of expertise and experience that make our artform thrive
We live in a time in which we are surrounded by fictions that would keep us from the basic truths at the heart of theater — fictions that would render some of us less human than others, fictions that divide us into competing tribes, that erect walls. From refugee camps halfway across the world to a world-class stage like Shakespeare Theatre Company, our art form has at its core something ancient, and profound — a place to truly see one another, in our full humanity, across our differences. There has never been a more important time for us to reclaim that simple essential power which theater has at its core.
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