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Are Protests a Performance?

In light of the protests going on around the globe during this time, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the relationship between performance and protesting. Some theatre and arts companies are activists in themselves and use performance and theatre elements to protest such as the Bread and Puppet Theatre Company. It is interesting to debate as well how protesting is a performance in itself. Gardner commented in 2016 that “any kind of street-level protest, from an anti-Trident demonstration to the pro-democracy umbrella protests in Hong Kong, is effectively a form of theatre”. I myself have attended protests such as School strikes for Climate Change back when I was in sixth form and have performed in shows which have protesting as a main theme: Made in Dagenham.

Performance is defined by Schechner as something that “takes place as action, interaction and relation” (2002:28). Shechner discusses how everyday life is performance and comments  “performers of these actions intend to change things, to maintain the status quo, to find or make common ground” when discussing protestors and street demonstrators. Goffman describes performance as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants”  (1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 15-16). His interpretation of a performance hugely describes the attributes of a protest: the aim to influence other people. 

What makes protesting a form of theatre? What attributes do both performance and protesting have? Street protesting is live and encourages an audiences. Whether people are onlookers as they watch the protest move on the street or whether they are people listening to what the protesters are saying and are able to take action. Protesting demands an audience, protests demand people to listen to them and see what they want and to take action. Similarly, performance in most forms demands an audience and asks people to listen to them.

The arts are often at the forefront of many protests and demonstrations. The Bread and Puppet Theatre Company was founded in 1962/3 in New York and appeared in many anti-war protests during the time of the Vietnam War. Their enormous puppets created attention during the demonstrations. Anti-war is something they as a company strongly believe and this was shown again in their absence from the 2001 Halloween parade in NYC. By refusing to march, they were protesting against the War in Afghanistan which the 9/11 attack had, which had happened just 1.5 miles from where the parade would march, had been used as an excuse to go to war. Their name comes from the idea that theatre should be as essential to life as bread, according to founder Peter Schumann.

Judy Chicago believes that “performance can be fuelled by rage in a way that painting or a sculpture cannot”. This may be the reason why people use performance as a way to protest. For example, Invisible Circus enhanced Extinction Rebellion‘s attention via their scarlet robes and ritualistic performances to entertain onlookers as well as enforcing them to pay attention to how climate change threatens the human race. Pussy Riot are also a great example. Pussy Riot are famously known for their 2012 protest in the cathedral in Moscow against Putin being re-elected. During the protest they sung a song in the melody of Hail Mary but the lyrics were twisted to sound like they were asking the Virgin Mary to help get rid of Putin. They are also famous for protesting during the World Cup Final Moscow 2018. they ran onto the pitch during the second half dressed as police officers in a call to release political prisoners and to stop the censorship of peoples political views on social media in Russia.

Art activism and activist led performance should not be confused with political theatre. Art activism arguably has more impact than political theatre. Activist led performance has more direct influence as it tends to be in the streets among the action. Political theatre, on the other hand, is there to influence how people think, but that is as far as it goes and can easily be ignored once people have left the performance.

However we do get what is called a protest play. The protest play is said to date back to Greek theatre with Aristophanes comedies: Lysistrata and The Birds. Lysistrata was written in protest to the Spartan war and made to mock the government for using money for war. However, like political theatre, protest plays have little more effect than encouraging an audience to think differently.

It is noted that activist led theatre work tends to have the most transformative impact at a grassroots level by doing work in the local communities. I have previously done a post on how theatre can be a form of social work which explains the impact of Theatre of the Oppressed in communities – read here. Overall performance and protest can be inextricably linked as share attributes such as attempting to influence others and demanding an audience.

Resources referenced/used:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2016/mar/23/theatre-effective-protest-activism-change-debate

Aidan Ricketts (2006) Theatre of protest: The magnifying effects of theatre in direct action, Journal of Australian Studies, 30:89, 75-87, DOI: 10.1080/14443050609388094

https://www.digitaltheatreplus.com/education/news/lyn-gardner-on-theatre-and-performance-protest-performance-theatre-and-activism

SCHECHNER, Richard and Sara BRADY. 2013. Performance Studies An Introduction. 3rd ed. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

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LGBTQIA+ and Theatre.

Theatre has always been an extremely accepting place, especially for those who identify as LGBTQ+. As we come to the end of pride month and fight against the recent transphobic comments made by MP Baroness Nicholson’s twitter bullying and JK Rowling and her trans exclusionary feminism with her tweets that push for a “sex is real” narrative, which is a deeply harmful idea for trans people. I would personally like to say that this is not feminism, feminism is equality for EVERYONE and accepting EVERYONE. Feminism is not about being a women it is fighting for equality.  This outrage has happened during pride month. So seeing as we are drawing to the end of pride month, I thought it would be good to explore how theatre is a supportive place for LGBTQ+ community and how theatre explores the narratives of LGBTQ+ people. 

Here are some recommendations. As always I tend to just recommend 3 from each category mentioned, but obviously there is many more material than what is recommended here.

MUSICALS:

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

This musical is easily a modern classic for musicals. Inspired by the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, the musical explore Jamie New’s journey to wanting to be a drag queen in Sheffield with the goal of wearing a dress to his prom. The musical exposes the abuse LGBTQ+ people experience as other high school students bully him for his homosexuality. This show is the ultimate advocate of self expression and not being afriad of this as Jamie is forced to walk around school in make up, however he embraces this leading to a song later in the show called “Work of Art”.

& Juliet

This jukebox musical explore Juliet’s life if she hadn’t died, but survived being told through Anne Hathaway encouraging Shakespeare to rewrite the play. It is discovered that Romeo had many relationships before Juliet with both men and women. Juliet’s parent send her to a convent and her friends May, who is non-binary, her nurse Angelique and Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife) writes herself into the play as another friend ‘April’. They meet a character called Francois who encourages discussion of suffering with gendered concepts such as bathrooms and the French language. This musical successfully explores a different, more inclusive ending and represents the struggle of gender identification and sexuality as well as letting a female lead take control of her own destiny.  

Rent

One of my all time favourite musicals. A rock musical based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème opera. Set in New York in following friends who are young artists struggling to pay rent whilst struggling with addiction, AIDS/HIV and love. This musical features all kinds of love and friendship as well as the devastation of death due to AIDS and addictions. The story features a protest led by Maureen against the evicting the homeless from a lot where building plans are being made for by another character, Benny. The musical explores exotic dance through Mimi Marquez and how for some people it really is a way to pay their rent. If you are looking for some love and a great representation of complicated relationships, RENT is the one. Although it is heart-breaking at the same time so have your tissues at the ready.

PLAYS:

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

This two part play has a special place in my heart having played Harper in a very abridged version for my GCSE performance. I sort of compare Rent to a musical version of Angels in America. Angels in America explores the AIDS epidemic in America during the 1980s under Regan’s presidency. The play explores the Mormon church values and a character who has been unhappy his whole life because he is homosexual but married is wife. This subsequently leads to the unhappiness of his wife because she knows he is homosexual but cant accept it and it makes her mad. It is the struggle with religion and sexuality and ultimately being yourself. The play also explores promiscuity and how this csn actually be an escapism for some characters whom are dealing with death and accepting themselves. Angels in America is a play that changed the LGBTQ+ theatre.

Neaptide by Sarah Daniels

A modern day version of the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone. The play deals with sexual identity and gender politics. It tells the story of a headteacher aiming to expel two girls for coming out. Told through Claire, a homosexual history teacher who was hiding her sexuality from the school, speaks up for the girls whilst fighting for custody of her daughter with her ex husband. The story explores prejudice and hardened attitudes against LGBTQ+ through the law and the work place.

Wig Out

Set in New York where two houses fight for drag family supremecy at the Cinderella Ball. A boy meets boy fairytale as Eric meets Wilson. Eric is introduced into a new transgender world. Themes of masculinity, gender and drag run throughout the play as wells as exploring the concept of a marginalised community creating their own hierarchy. Audience members coming to watch this play were all kitted out in their fabulous drag outfits. The houses in the play – House of Light and House of Diabolique – and their fighting is compared to that of Capulet and Montague or the Jets and the Sharks.

THEATRE COMPANIES:

Queer Collective – Arcola Theatre

East London’s performances collective for LGBTQI+ people, exploring queer idnetity and how to represent it in theatre. Run by Arcola who run targeted community theatre groups which are brought together in their annual Creative Disruption festival.

Full Disclosure

A company committed to LGBTQI+ narratives. Encourage a platform for new writers, makers and actors as they try to discover unheard voices both literally and in the LGBTQI+ themes in their work.

Above the Stag Theatre

An independent charity and theatre company whose venue in London is the only one to program purely LGBT themed work. The company strive to give a voice to the LGBTQ+ community through theatre and entertainment in all forms with equality as a focus for their work.

ARTS CHARITIES/ORGANISATIONS/VENUES:

Raze Collective

A charity who have been supporting queer performance since 2015. Their name, ‘Raze’, was a reaction to queer spaces being razed from closures and threats of many queer performances spaces in both London and UK in general. The charity beings all performance workers including producers, promoters, directors etc in order to protect and promote queer performance. They host a regular Queer Performers Network to gather performers to discuss issues, advice and support as well as commissioning new work from Queer artists.

Queer Art Projects

A london based independent production company who run arts events such as performances and workshops whilst also offering consultancy services on applying for funds. The compnay was founded by Tuna Erde and Seda Ergul who have given talks on art to various universities and are founding members of Istanbul Queer Art Collective.

CUNTempory

A non-profit organisation working with individuals and groups exploring feminist, queer and decolonial art and theory to be platform for giving visibility to events which may not be listed in popular media because of their queer and feminist politics. They organise talks, screenings, performances etc with artists, performers and theorists in London, around the UK and even abroad. Their work aims to reclaim space for those bodies that are non-white, non-western, non-able as well as all genders and sexualities. Their work has supported events such as Pride Festival 2014 in Cyprus and Genderotica Festival 2015 in Rome.

Theatre is the ultimate form of self expression and exposing human rights. This is why it can be such an escapism for everyone, especially LGBTQ+ community. The world right now is demanding ally ship in all forms and I believe theatre is a great way to educate on this.

Here are also a couple of articles on both Baroness Nicholson and JK Rowling’s transphobia and how transphobia and homophobia is systematic:

https://www.vogue.com/article/jk-rowling-transphobic-tweets

https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2020/06/jk-rowling-transphobia-feminism

https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/06/10/baroness-emma-nicholson-same-sex-marriage-equality-tweets-twitter-homophobia/

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We can’t lose theatre.

It was announced earlier this week that pubs and other cultural activities were allowed to reopen from 4th July, however live performances are still banned. Theatres are losing the main source of revenue from loss of ticket sales and reimbursing tickets where performances were cancelled due to coronavirus. Theatres are clutching at straws and digging up reserves to keep going. Some theatre operators have ceased their contracts leaving some theatres including Key Theatre Peterborough and Leicester Haymarket Theatre are now without an operator. Arts Council England have announced a £160m emergency response package also. This cannot be the end of an industry that we love. I am worried for all my friends working in this industry and those graduating into it because the government is ignoring the danger it is in. An open letter went to Parliament signed by many in the creative industry warning that without sufficient support to the creative industries the UK could be come a “cultural wasteland”. This is disappointing.  

There are campaigns and charities trying to help. For example, Freelancers Make Theatre Work is a campaign lobbying that freelancers should have a seat in discussions made by the government for the arts. They have written an open letter to the government and are encouraging people to write to their MP. They have a template on their website here. Theatre Support Fund is raising money by selling merchandise with profits going to theatre charities: Acting For Others, Fleabag Support Fund and NHS Covid Urgent Appeal.

And the Theatres Trust is giving updates to the government. The National Theatre have raised thousands of pounds through their online streaming as people donate through the youtube whilst watching a play. But this is not enough. There needs to be government consideration. Hospitality venues are beginning to be able to reopen so hopefully bars and restaurants in theatre can open and bring in some small income whilst all live performances are still banned.

Compared to other countries the UK is sufficiently lacking in its support for the creative industry and theatre sector. https://twitter.com/RoseWardlaw/status/1275700839760433154?s=20

Here is why theatre should not be neglected. We need the arts to keep our society well cultured and to prevent so many people losing their jobs and livelihoods. It is obvious that theatre can’t fully open at this point but there could be social distancing measurements put in place like there will be in pubs and shops. There can be socially distanced performances or performances containing monologues where there are just single people on the stage.

Theatre is not just for those who work in the industry, it is for those who attend the theatre for escapism, for those who attend workshops to learn and to train and for those who enjoy it as a hobby to get away from their day to day lives.

I look onto my Facebook feed and I see the pleas from my past tutors at extra curricular youth theatres I attended as a teenager. I remember how much effort and work they put into the classes and productions and the positive impact they made on us impressionable teenagers. The confidence they built and the skills they taught us. Their jobs are at risk due to dance and drama lessons still banned and the government are ignoring their pleas for backup finance, especially as many of these tutors are freelance workers and self employed. The positive effect that teachers like this have on the young people and communities they work with is not worth losing. I have never felt a sense of community like my time at youth theatre or in my dance and drama lessons.  

Theatre is a form of therapy for some people and not just in the drama therapy sense. People attend theatres for catharsis and escapism as they got lost in the music of big west end musicals or have their heart strings pulled by serious dramas or amazed by the tricks of physical theatre performances. Theatre encourage people to feel and observe their emotions which helps release them from tensions of real life. This escapism cannot be lost.

Theatre is a one of the UK best aspects. The West End is consistently aspired by young actors or even audiences members from inside and outside the UK. The theatres of London are great architectural buildings that emphasis the grand traditional side of London. Theatres all over the country bring great economic difference to the towns and cities they are located in. Not only do people spend their money on the actual show but they spend money getting there, maybe on a drink or a meal before or after a show. Theatres would be a great loss to economies across the country especially places like London’s West End or Edinburgh during summer when they would usually be filled to the brim with people due to the Fringe festival. In 2016, the arts and culture industry is estimated to have supported £48bn in turnover, £23bn in GVA, 363,713 jobs and £13.4bn in employee compensation – Arts Council England report 2018/2019.Boris Johnson is under pressure by the business sector at the moment but theatres are businesses!

We cannot let theatre suffer as it is being left to do so. As a current theatre student I do fear for my fellow students and I future careers as well as thinking of all my friends already in the industry losing work and livelihoods. Of course this won’t be the end but it will be a massive struggle and obviously all sectors are struggling right now. However the future of theatre and the arts MUST BE HIGHLIGHTED AND DISCUSSED.

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Theatre of the Oppressed – How theatre can be used as a form of social work

“All theatre is necessarily political because all the activities of man are political and theatre is one of them. Those who try to separate theatre from politics try to lead us into error – and this is a political attidue” – Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal.

I have never been so intrigued than when I was introduced to Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre of the Oppressed was founded by Brazilian practitioner, Augusto Boal in the 1960s/70s. I personally first explored Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in a couple of workshops at university with a theatre maker who has great experience in the style. Theatre of the Oppressed raised a spark in my belly and opened my eyes to how theatre could directly impact people and really, truly engage them. I loved the idea of a ‘spectactor’ – an audience member who is “a member of the audience who takes part in the action…an active spectator, as opposed to the passivity normally associated with the role of an audience member” (Boal 2002). In the workshop at uni we used forum theatre, which is “a theatrical game in which a problem is shown in an unsolved form, to which the audience, again spect-actors, is invited to suggest and enact solutions” (Boal 2002) to explore a situation in where someone was being harassed on the tube. A model was played out and then we as the audience would go up and put ourselves in the protagonist shoes – the person being harassed – and act out how we would tackle the situation and overcome the harassment. This method of theatre stimulates debate and evokes conversations on how to deal and overcome oppressions – in this situation we were debating how to stop being harassed on the tube. However, instead of just saying how we would deal with the issue we would actually have to deal with the issue by acting it out. This method of theatre really set a fire within me as it presents to audiences – or spectators – ways in which to overcome situations in which they are being oppressed. Excited by this, I then decided to research more and in doing so I have found out how Theatre of the Oppressed has been able to impact places and been used to tackle difficult topics and educate about communities about them.

In his 2002 book, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, Boal shares examples of forums, invisible theatre and image theatre pieces. A forum piece that stands out is the village of Godrano, Italy. Boal created a forum piece with the intention of raising the discussion the oppression of women in the village. The model showed a story of a girl wanting to go on a walk but being unable to as she had to be accompanied by a male family member whom were all ‘busy’. The girl went anyway and was consequently on the receiving end of abuse. This model opened up the conversation in the village and although the men ordered their wives to go home, amazingly many of them stayed and even some took part in the forum. The forum theatre gave the women the courage to stand up to their male counterparts and begin to discuss with them their oppression. I highly recommend reading the full story in Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors as it is truly eye opening to the power theatre can have in encouraging audiences to have courage and stand up to those oppressing them. This is why theatre can be a form of social work. 

US universities have been using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. These universities include Texas, Oregon, California State and North Carolina. In 2006 Rodriguez, Rich, Hastings and Page made a sexual assault program using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. The effectiveness of the program was tested using measures of: perspective taking, emotional contagion, empathic concern and comforting. The students who took part in the program were tested against those who did not. Those who completed the theatrical program scored significantly well in the tests, showing their attitude towards acceptability of rape had declined. In texas, the college Date Rape survey was used to test those who had seen a production focused on date rape prevention and again the attitude of acceptability towards rape had declined. The US National Institute of Justice concluded in 2013 that  “theatrical presentations can simultaneously educate and entertain, adapting concerns to the interests, vocabularies and attention spans of their audiences” (Christensen 2013). Therefore audiences are more likely to learn on a deeper level than if they were being lectured or being taught in a traditional classroom setting. 

Combatants for Peace in Palestine/Israel have been using Theatre of the Oppressed to advocate for peace. Combatants for Peace was founded in 2005 and is a non-violent movement which revokes the idea that non-violence equal passivity. Combatants for Peace work is slightly different as it does not declare that one side is oppressed, instead they work on a ‘polarized’ model of theatre of the Oppressed which works towards a third narrative. A narrative which is neither pro Israelis and/or pro Palestinians. In 2010, the group performed in the village of Shufa dealing with the situation of roadblocks in the village making access for Palestinians in and out very difficult. They played out a model of a Grandfather being brought home after an operation but could not go through and the only other way was to go 24km round. The model exposed how unfair the situation was. After four years of work in the village, Combatants for Peace had helped get road blocks removed as well as providing electricity to the village. Combatants for Peace recognise that they have 4 different audiences: the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Jewish settlers, the soldiers. In one instance, the soldier audience was tested when they were watching and saw a Palestinian replace a soldier in the play. In forum theatre, often a piece of costume will be used to signify a character and when a spect-actor replaces an actor to play a character, he will then put the piece of costume on. In this case a soldiers jacket was signifying the role of a soldier. As the Palestinian went to put the jacket on a soldier from the audience came up to arrest him for impersonation. The audience began to laugh at how ridiculous this was which the soldier then realised it was ridiculous so did not arrest the Palestinian spect-actor. The power of theatre to prevent an arrest. 

In the UK, theatre company Cardboard Citizens work with homeless people with an aim to change society’s perception of homelessness. Cardboard Citizens website is full of stories of the people they have worked with. Many of these stories comment on the support that being part of the company has given them such as finding counselling for participants who need it and increasing their mental health through participating in the theatre work. Cardboard Citizens run workshops and training in Theatre of the Oppressed techniques which are both for the homeless and anyone else who wants to explore this style of theatre. Cardboard Citizens successfully promote better life experience for those they work with, showing how theatre can be a form of social work.

Jana Sanskriti are a theatre company Bengal who have groups working consistently in the villages in West Bengal. Their work reaches around 2 million spect-actors a year.  Jana Sanskriti’s work has helped reduce the rate of child marriage from 59% to 19% in one village – a concrete measure that shows Theatre of the Oppressed work is effective and can make a significant change. On their website Theatre of the Oppressed is described as ‘the rehearsal and performance of a total revolution’. The company addresses issues such as domestic violence, child trafficking, primary education, mental health just to name a few. A recent study headed by Dr.Jyothsna Jalan of Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Jana Sanskriti’s work shows the impact of ‘spect-acting’ in creating a strong community of active and responsible citizens as well as combatting social norms. 

To conclude, Theatre of the Oppressed techniques of directly involving the audience to stimulate debate and make the audience see that they can make choices in situations gives the audience confidence in real life.  Theatre of the Oppressed makes audience members become spect-actors who join in the experience of the theatre, showing to them that they have control of their own character, that they can make choices in their own lives. I fully advocate that theatre techniques like forums can be used in communities to deal with tough subjects and address them directly. This is what theatre should do. Theatre should impact communities and encourage change. In this current climate how could we use Theatre of the Oppressed?

Resources used/you should check out:

BOAL, Augusto. 2008. Theatre of the Oppressed. New ed. London: Pluto Press.

BOAL, Augusto. 2002. Games for Actors and Non-Actors . 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Cardboard Citizens are currently running ‘What now for the Theatre of the Oppressed?’ livestreams every Friday at 2pm on facebook and youtube which are then uploaded to youtube where Adrian Jackson converses with Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners which have included Chen Alon from Combatants for Peace, Barabara Santos, Sanjoy Ganguly from Jana Sanskriti in Bengal just to name a few.

CHRISTENSEN, M. Candace. 2013. ‘Using Theater of the Oppressed to Prevent Sexual Violence on College Campuses’. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 14(4), 282–94.

‘Rehearsing the revolution’: theatre in Israel-Palestine. Feb 2014. Niki Seth-Smith.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/rehearsing-revolution-theatre-in-israel-palestine/

Theatre for #BlackLivesMatter – How we can support the movement through theatre.

Earlier in the week I discussed the lack of diversity within theatre, particularly within British audiences. In this post, I want to highlight theatre companies and productions for people to better themselves as allies to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I like to promote that theatre can help encourage social change and be used as a political platform. So here are few productions, companies etc who we can support or learn from to support a great cause.

Companies:

TALAWA

Black led touring theatre company in the UK. Founded in 1986 in response to the lack of creative opportunities for black actors. Their name means gutsy and strong and is a Jamaican patois term. Their work ‘is informed by the wealth and diversity of the Black British experience’ and provide opportunities for Black artists. They are a charity and rely partly on donations which can be made through their website. You can watch their production of King Lear, a co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre and in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, on Amazon Prime for £7.99/9.99. Their website also provides some shocking statistics on the lack of workforce from BAME backgrouds.

BALLET BLACK

A professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent who aim to bring ballet to a more culturally diverse audience by celebrating Black and Asian ballet dancers. To support Ballet Black you can become a friend to them which with a fee of £48 per year (£24 for children) you will be welcomed to watch rehearsals and receive quarterly newsletter from the company. The fee you pay will go towards keeping company going and its support its commitment to aspiring dancers. You can watch some of their work on youtube through their #BBONFILM campaign –  this one is called ‘Mute’

BEYOND FACE CIC

A performance company based in Plymouth founded in 2015 with an aim to raise the profile and visibility of People of Colour in the Arts. “Whilst we recognise that the term People of Colour is not used by everyone it is a term that currently best describes the demographic of artists that we work with and we acknowledge that no one fits into one box.” Create professional performances which are toured across the UK and deliver workshops and training/support for developing artists, young people etc. Alix Harris founded the company after working in Plymouth and realized there was a need for a company like Beyond Face in South West England. Beyond Face has a youth company which gives ages 11-18 the opportunity to work with Professionals in the industry and to perform in professional venues in Plymouth. Recent productions include ‘Alright Petal?’ and ‘2000 stories’.

Other groups to checkout:

Mandala Theatre

Tangle Theatre

Eclipse Theatre

Tara Arts

Nitrobeat

Nouveau Riché

Afridiziak

Mooville Theatre

Productions to watch/ plays to read:

Obviously check out any productions that the companies above have produced and support them. However, here are some productions that also open your eyes to racism, especially in Britain.

SMALL ISLAND

Small lsland is a National Theatre production, which can be watched via the National Theatre Collection on DramaOnline. Adapted by Helen Edmundson based on the novel by Andrea Levy. The story exposes the British treatment of those from Jamaica during the Windrush generation and also the belief those coming over to Britain had of having a better life compared to the harsh reality. Small Island follows three intricately connected stories of Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie. Gilbert dreams of being a lawyer, Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica and Queenie is a charitable woman in England who doesn’t have the prejudices most people have.  Small Island takes you on a journey from Jamaica to Britain through WWII to 1948. The Windrush generation has been mistreated by the British since 1948 and now with the recent scandal in 2018 and this years deportation flight in February. The Windrush scandal is something I urge everyone to look up because racism is still very systematic in the UK. 

A RAISIN IN THE SUN

A play by Lorraine Hansberry. The played debuted on Broadway in 1959 – the first play written by a black woman and directed by a black director to be produced on Broadway. The story follows a black family’s experiences in South Chicago as they attempt to improve their financial circumstances with an insurance pay out following the death of the father. Experiences in this play echo those of Hansberry’s own family as they had to fight to have their day in court for a lawsuit they were party in. All but one character in the cast is white. This play is considered to be a classic, so why is this not on A Level English or drama curriculums which are full of plays by white males such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller?

OTHELLO

I am sure many A Level students have had experiences with Othello and explored the race relations within Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. You can access the National Theatre version through DramaOnline and the 1965 version with Lawrence Olivier and Maggie Smith can be bought on DVD, however it is not overly recommended. Lawrence Olivier’s Othello would be open to much controversy today with Olivier playing Othello in Black face makeup which shows how it was still only 50 years ago that a white actor would play a black role in makeup. I would like to hope the theatre world has come much farther than this. There are so many resources online to explore Othello due to it being on both GCSE and A Level book lists. Othello presents the prejudices of Africans during Elizabethan times through the story of a Black Moor, Othello, being reduced to madness and manipulated by Iago, a white soldier who is jealous of Othello’s position and enraged by not being given position of Othello’s Lieutenant.  

Projects/schemes:

BLACK TICKET PROJECT

An initiative creating cultural access points for Black young people across England. Founded in 2018. BTP works with youth groups, charities, schools and youth arts companies to help build relationships between arts institutions and communities that are often racially and socially economically marginalised.

BLACK BRTISH THEATRE AWARDS

An awards organisation set up to raise the profile of the role that Black Britons have made artistically on both a national and international level. They recognise the lack of recognition for Black actors and artists but also the abundance of talent there is. They highlight achievements in all creative roles including design, composing, writing, choreography, lighting, sound etc. in order to diversify the industry all creative fields must be recognised for their achievements.

NBAA – NATIONAL BLACK ARTS ALLIANCE

A registered charity formed in 1985 by a group of community artists attending Sheldon Trust, who realised that Black art was being marginalised in the UK by funders, art audiences and politicians. They do workshops, performances, seminars, prison and mental health engagement, creative participation opportunities and more whilst challenging perceptions of Black culture and celebrate the many dimensions of Black Heritage. They curate the North West England’s only dedicated Black art and culture library. A current project for them is ‘Strength of our Mothers‘ – an oral history project documenting the lives of 24 white women in Greater Manchester who were in interracial relationships with Africans from 1940s-2000s.

Interesting articles to read:

Professor Farah Karim-Cooper examines the racial meanings behind the language of light/dark and white/black used in Shakespeare’s England – https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discover/blogs-and-features/2020/05/26/anti-racist-shakespeare/

Decolonizing Theatre an introduction by Annalisa Dias and Madeline Sayat – https://howlround.com/decolonizing-theatrela-descolonizacion-del-teatro

I encourage everyone to check all these companies and great pieces of works out, to either educate yourselves or support the companies.

Theatre diversity – why are theatre seats filled with white middle class?

In light of recent events around the world today I thought it would be interesting to consider the lack of diversity within the theatre industry, particularly in audiences. When you go to a London theatre today (obviously before the time of COVID-19) the typical audience demographic would be white middle class people with an average age of 45 – 74 according to Arts Council England 2015 Analysis of Theatre in England. So where are the working class, the younger people, the disabled and BAME audiences? A quick disclaimer in that this post is just a broad overview and that it is not as in depth as it could be because diversity and accessibility to everyone is an important topic.

The Arts Council’s 2015 Analysis of Theatre in England reported that 92-96% of those booking tickets are white and 2014-2015 ticket sales showed that social grades A and B % booking tickets  was higher than the representation of these groups within the population. Social grades D and E % of bookers was lower than their representation in the general population. Although this was five years ago now, there arguably has not been much of a change in these percentages. In terms of BAME audiences the report showed from Audience Agency and Purple Seven Data that BAME audiences were continually under represented and this was similar with disabled audiences who were a marginal 6-8% of ticket bookers.

Those speaking out against the lack of diversity in the theatre audience argue that it is because BAME, working class and disabled need their stories to be told on the stage to encourage more of these audiences to come to theatres. Actress Meera Syal claimed in 2014 that BAME audiences want to see their experiences told on stage so they can relate to what they are watching. However, critic David Lister argued against the idea of relevance as audiences will go see an enjoyable show even if they cannot relate to it. This included examples such as Shakespeare stories like King Lear or Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire as these shows have universal themes and timeless conversations audiences continue to see them even when they can not relate to them. However, it is suggested in the Arts Council report that audiences are often more likely to see a piece of work where they can see themselves reflected in it. Therefore the lack of diverse casting and the lack of BAME and disabled work that is programmed into theatre means that there will continue to be a lack of these groups in audiences.

Theatre companies such as Common Wealth and Red Ladder create work enthused with working class experiences whilst avoiding the typical, dominant narratives of the working class being ‘baddies’ or the ones who need help or saving. Some argue what the point is of performing a working class voice to a middle class audience? The point could be to emphasise equality and show these audiences how little difference there are between people but what we really want is for the working class theatre pieces to be performed to the working class. In other words, how can we get a higher percentage of working class in to theatre seats? The obvious obstacle is ticket prices and the ongoing dilemma of lowering ticket prices for audiences could lead to a lesser quality of good work or artists being underpaid. Or the work could be taken to the working class such as groups take work to village halls and social clubs as working class are more likely to gather in these places than buy tickets for a seat at the theatre.  The other less obvious obstacle is there is the simple misconception that theatre is entertainment for the higher classes, a stereotype almost. This is ironic seeing as being an actor and working in theatre is often seen as one of the poorer jobs of the world. This stereotype comes from centuries ago as historical it would be a place where the rich would be entertained, however things are different now  and the stereotype is no longer true. Theatre is for everyone.

Many have commented on the fact that companies and institutions have begun casting BAME and disabled actors to tick boxes and to access funding rather than genuine commitment to the becoming more diverse. In 2014, Peter Bazalgette – head of Arts Council then – announced that arts companies could lose funding if they did not consider the lack of diversity in audiences and were showing ways they were addressing this. Therefore some companies at have been ticking boxes to be in line with this or to show to audiences they were inclusive. But how genuine is this?

Another argument is to get more women, working class, BAME and disabled working in other areas of the theatre such as producing, backstage, directing and writing. A 2019 report declared that only 10 % of artistic directors are working class and 2017 report confirmed only 10% of artistic directors are from a BAME background. In a three year study in America t was found that only 22% of plays were written by women in non profit theatres. These numbers can be changed as more and more people come into the industry, it is just about making it accessible for everyone.

To conclude, the main factors into enticing diverse audiences is diverse theatre programming to include shows and artists that reflect the audiences we want to see in the theatre seats. Making theatre more accessible to these groups and defeating the stereotype that theatre is for the middle class. Theatre is for everyone and this should be reflected both on and off stage.

Resources used:

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-have-to-worry-about-the-lack-of-ethnic-minorities-in-theatre-audiences-9915940.html

https://thecreativeconversation.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/diversity-in-theatre-are-we-there-yet/

Click to access Analysis_theatre_England_16112016.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/mar/13/british-theatre-class-problem?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

The exposition

The introduction to The Theatre Politician. I am a Ba Theatre and Performance student currently finishing my first year. This blog is to exercise my writing skills by exploring my interest in theatre and how it can be used as a political force.

Theatre can be a way to directly empower people, be used as effective propaganda and can influence the way an audience thinks. This can be achieved through forms such as Brechtian theatre, theatre of the oppressed – forum and invisible theatre, popular theatre and traditional theatre. Since Ancient Greece theatre has been used to criticise government through entertainment and many a practitioner has strong political beliefs which they portray through their works in order to convince audiences into their way of thinking or at least for the audience to question their own current beliefs.

To conclude, this blog will contain discussion, essays, articles, reviews and highlights of the theatre world past and present and to hopefully persuade those reading that theatre can be a way to exercise political rights.