Theatre’s Potential for Social Action by Joanna Garfinkel

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A year into the Pandemic and Uprising, I admit I am questioning our ability as theatre artists, really of any art, to effect social action.

I appreciate how as a sector it is the time to look inward at the systemic racism that has underpinned North American theatre for decades. But what of our intentions to use theatre to reflect and refract the world around us; to use our tools to make it a more just place?

Is it even possible in a colonial country, and under capitalism?

Theatre, outside of direct action practitioners, like in Theatre of the Oppressed, is often unable to effect change. We’re plagued internally by scarcity mentality, scrambling for little. Our theatre conservatory and educational programs tell us we’re here to “do something,” without truly educating us in political theory or history. And we’re often working within or around institutions who are wary of worrying a perceived middle-class audience, institutions where the scarcity mentality is writ larger.

Plays that touch on social justice often employ revisionism, white saviours, or false narrativization as they struggle to speak for communities the collaborators might not be a part of.

Before pessimism fully takes over this blog effort, I will put forth that perhaps we can have an effect, if our words are sturdy, our aims specific, and our target small. Theatre of the Oppressed is so successful in its action by basing its work in continuation–that the work performed is ongoing, recognizing the accomplishments of community members beforehand, collaborating with organizations on the front lines of a movement, and continuing after the performance has concluded.

I have been fortunate to be a part of site-specific and community-partnered pieces, where the action of the play broadened beyond the text, and served as a springboard for community conversation, reflection, and knowledge sharing. It granted us the opportunity to see the impact performance can have on a community.

“Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

When pieces are created in collaboration with communities impacted by the centred issue, and moreover when access is prioritized from the start – access to workshops, to free or discounted tickets, to the creators themselves – now the ingredients are in place for some genuine conversation.

Pre-COVID, I was so fortunate to get to see JD Derbyshire’s Certified, which engaged us as an audience in the role of mental health review board; casting a light on the perils of the mental health system, but also speaking to their own one specific story, so poignant and hilarious all the while.

This week, you can see Mx at the Cultch, a process that has over and over again centred direct action with community, tickets shared to those who need, and support and elevation of meaningful colleagues in the community.

Alexander Chee writes into and out of the crisis of this year: “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

And when war comes — and make no mistake, it is already here — be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?”