“You know Katherine, theatre is a lot like politics.”
I have spent a large portion of my life hearing this phrase from my father, a former politician. Every time he says it, it’s as though the thought just occurred to him and the conversation is treated as such, spurring a similar sequence of points and connections between our shared love for trying to create the world as it could be. Thinking about the overlap between a political campaign and the theatre can be somewhat eerie and disheartening. As this election cycle comes to a close I have been inundated with campaign rhetoric everywhere I go. It seems to me that theatre and politics are intersecting in my life in a way they haven’t before. Maybe it’s because I am older and more deeply imbedded in the artistic community, or maybe it has something to do with the theatricality of this election. Either way, once I noticed the overlaps between this election cycle and my own artistic experience I started thinking about how each of these seemingly separate paths have incredible power to shape the way we view ourselves, our neighbors and our shared humanity.
Being raised in a home run by parents who were politicians is quite the experience. Add onto this that we are Jewish, not Jew-ish, but missed-school-dances-because-of-Shabbat-dinner Jewish. Add to this that I grew up in Berkeley, California surrounded by adults ripped from the pages of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The messages I was constantly hearing as a child were ones of obligation and solidarity, standing with those who aren’t being treated fairly. It seems inevitable that this mentality wiggled it’s way into my perceptions on how theatre should be utilized. Both Judaism and the liberal city of Berkeley have, at their center, a mindset towards the common good and the power/obligation of a group to move towards said common good. There is a natural overlap between theatre and political activism that has been deep rooted in our country, not just in my hippy dippy hometown. During a speech at Amherst College John F. Kennedy touched upon the importance of the artist in the cultural dialogue:
“The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…”
In totalitarian governments often times one of the first things to get taken away from the people is access to theatre, because theatre can be a quiet and soft revolution. I believe that the revolutionary aspect lies in it’s uniting nature. Everyone sits in a room for two hours and watches the same story, nothing more, nothing less. It is in this space that we see ourselves and our neighbors on stage, our common humanity. Theatre and politics are both playing the game of power and change. They both can change minds on a mass scale and can change them on the turn of a dime. Political plays have become something audiences seem to be responding to more and more. The audience members who want to see the world as it could be, filled with political change, or maybe the world as it could be if we don’t take action. The arts and creative outlets would have to be the first to go in an unhealthy political ecosystem because representing life and its inequality is an inherently political act. I have been watching the players of this election and I have been captivated by how they have decided to showcase humanity. Much like the arts, they have the same ability to inform how we see ourselves, but more importantly our neighbors. On the campaign trail I have seen time and time again as the American people ask, “Is there something to be afraid of? Who will protect me from the laundry list of things that frighten me and are out of my control?” I have seen two answers presented, one of fear and one of hope, as my dad has predicted time and time again. The first one is, we are “stronger together” and that we need to unite for the hope of a better future where we can balance the scales. The other is a message of fear, fear of lost power, of lost status quo, of the other, of our neighbor, of a false universal experience. It is times like these that the arts become crucial, to show a different version of our shared experience, in spite of all the messages we are receiving about what is dividing us, or more importantly what we must give up so we can come together.
A good campaign is an improv. At it’s core a campaign needs to say “yes, and”, continually moving forward. I have been captivated as a student, an actor and a West Wing lover. I have watched this campaign get more and more out of hand as we have tumbled towards November. I have watched as discourse has been shut off and radicalized and I have watched as fear has become the central talking point in most of my conversations. It is in times like this that I have become captivated by the art coming out of this election. While writing this blog post I went and watched some of the pivotal moments from this campaign, watching these candidates and their teams as actors. The costumes, the scripts, the improved moments with voters. It has been fascinating to see, as I have seen in the real world, that sometimes years of actor training has it’s only legitimate competition with children, animals and (I now have noticed) unbridled insanity.
My father often says “Simply, you can run a campaign on fear or hope.” Part of the reason I have become captivated by how theatre is in dialogue with this election is because when people are scared the theatre is a wonderful place to go. I have watched as theater’s have followed the simple fear or hope rhetoric. You either program into the fear, saying it is our job as a company to take a stand, informing our audience for the greater good. Or you can take a path of hope, saying here is what humanity is, here is what we look like in our softer moments, these are the things we share. We can work together to paint the world as it is or as we see it could be. Theatre and politics are both a presentation of ideas, attempts to paint the world as we want it to be, but theatre is obviously pretend, we will leave our seats and our worlds will go on, mostly, as they were. With politics the hope is that through presenting ideas, we together can unite over our common humanity and make the world something more than what it already is, a better place. The power and the let down in both of these is that ultimately they are both just ideas and nice words. Presenting the world as it could be is a lofty and sometimes isolating job to take on, but at the end all those ideas and nice words are just seeds to be planted in the shared consciousness. It is the job of the voter or the audience to decide what they want to do with the story they have been told and ultimately it is in their hands to decide if they want to work towards that new future. As we continue on into the inauguration of our next president let us not forget the power of theatre to show the world as we want it to be, to show the common humanity of our neighbors and to show capacity of the human spirit.