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