Theater of the People

Theater of the People

Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent plea to Hamlet audiences asking them to refrain from taking pictures or video during his performance, in some ways seems like the typical “please silence your cell phones throughout the performance” announcement, that often accompanies plays, concerts, and movies. However, this announcement has caused quite the drama (pun intended). There are people who defend Cumberbatch, and lament the horrible influence cell phones and mobile technology has had on our lives. In some ways I understand the point of view of the Cumberbatch supporters, the flashing lights of a camera can be very distracting when you are on stage in a dark theater (although I can’t really imagine that someone who is used to acting in front of multiple cameras, boom mics, and bright lights could really be that distracted by a flashing camera light), and no one wants their hard work to be turned into an internet meme with screaming goats (though Taylor Swift didn’t seem to mind.)

However, some critics of the Cumberbatch announcement have brought up the question of access–does this announcement discourage people from coming to see the show who are more Cumberbatch fans than Shakespeare fans? And shouldn’t the theater be trying to bring in the Cumberbatch fans, and show them how cool Shakespeare actually is?

Lyn Gardner comments that this presents a conundrum for theaters: “on the one had it is desperate to increase diversity and get more people to give it a try, rather than thinking that it’s not for the likes of them, and on the other hand it gets really narked when people who buy theatre tickets don’t know the rules about how you’re expected to behave.” While access to art should be about more than bringing in the Cumberbatch-obsessed Sherlock fans and exposing them to Shakespeare, she brings up a good point–if someone has never been to the theater before, should they be pushed away from it because it seems unwelcoming?

I’m not sure I can come down on either side of this debate–on the one hand I want everyone to feel like the theater is a welcoming place where they can be who they are and not fear getting kicked out if they don’t know the “rules.” The theater has had a long-standing tradition of breaking “rules,” and being a place to challenge conventions. On the other hand, people should be able to enjoy and immerse themselves in the wonders of a live performance, without the distractions of the extra lights, or the bright phone screen. We spend so much of our day with our world mediated through screens–phones, computers, televisions–it is nice that there are still some places where we can just be, and live, and experience, without the pressure of texting about it to our friends or updating Facebook or Twitter.

Either way, I’m not sure, however, that banning phones from the theatre is the answer. I see great potential for the way that theater can adapt to our technological world. It’s hard not to watch something like the recent PSA about texting and driving released by Volkswagen and not see the potential that technology has to get audiences more involved and more engaged with performances.  Phones, iPads, iPods, laptops, smart watches, brain-chips in our head (because those will be out soon, right?) could all be used as tools to open up more creative possibilities for theater. Because the truth is, our world is changing. Technology isn’t going away, and it is reshaping how we think, process, and communicate, and this world is going to demand a new kind of theater. As much as I appreciate the sentiment behind asking me to leave my technology at the door, I worry that it is sentiments like this that will pull theater away from the dynamic, engaging, rule-breaking art-form it has always been, and turn it into the stuffy old white man art that many already fear it is. As Gardner points out, Hamlet would not have been performed in silence in Shakespeare’s day, and the raucous audience was one of the pleasures of the theater-going experience. It is only since then that we have turned theater into the silent, formal event that it is. But theater is constantly adapting, so instead of sticking with the old ways, perhaps the answer is to embrace new ones.



Performance Art and Animal Testing

In April 2012, Jacqueline Traides and Oliver Cronk performed a shocking piece in the window of Lush  Cosmetics’ on Regent Street in London. Parts of this piece can be seen in the video above, where Traides performs as a “test subject” who undergoes torturous procedures at the hands of a “lab technician” (Cronk). This piece was part of Lush’s Fighting Animal Testing campaign, and its shocking nature really seemed to convince people to sign the petition to end cosmetics testing on animals. It is not often that we see artists, especially performance artists, working directly with specific social justice campaigns. Because of this, it is very hard to miss the message of the piece.  While, like most performance art, the piece is nuanced, its hard to misunderstand the message when there are people standing with clipboards ready to have you sign their petition. In some ways this seems to make the piece more effective in accomplishing its purpose, but it also seems to somewhat diminish the aesthetic effect of the piece. Perhaps Traides, Cronk, and the Lush campaign are paving the way for a more precise connection between social justice and art, one that is obvious and straightforward, but what will that mean for the aesthetic value of the art that is created?

…and Counting

"...and Counting"  Wafaa Bilal, 2010. NY, NY.
“…and Counting”
Wafaa Bilal, 2010. NY, NY.

In 2010, Wafaa Bilal had a message to share about the way Americans understood the Iraq war. He was responding to the way that the number of  American casualties of the war was greatly publicized, but the much larger number of Iraqi casualties was largely ignored. In this 24-hour performance piece, Bilal literally transforms his body into a canvas, having his back tattooed with 5,000 red dots, representing American casualties, and 100,000 green dots that are only visible under ultraviolet light, representing Iraqi casualties. The painstaking process of being tattooed (which those of us who were not there at the time can get a glimpse of through this video,) the incessant buzzing of the tattoo machine, and the reading of the names of the dead, creates a moving, visceral, and uncomfortable sensation for the audience. Which is probably exactly what Bilal intends. This piece reminds us that that war effects all of us, and that war is written on our bodies. In the action of inscribing the names of the dead onto his own body, Bilal reminds us of the ways the dead are also inscribed onto our own bodies. “You feel that pain as much as I feel it,” he claims, according to this article from NPR. Bilal reminds us of the true cost of war, not only to the hundreds of thousands of people who die, and their families and loved ones, but also to those who are spectators to war, to those who insist war doesn’t effect them, to those who barely even know what is going on.


Performing in the Midst of Violence

A question that I wonder about a lot, and one that seems to concern other artists and activists as well, is what role does art have to play in the midst of conflict? While I think it’s probably pretty clear from the theme of most of the posts in this blog that I think that art definitely has an important role to play in confronting social justice issues, I am always interested to see how artists see their role and how they think about creating art in places filled with violence and conflict. Dijana Miloševic, a director and co-founder of DAH Theatre in Belgrade, also has some interesting reflections on this issue. In her chapter, “Theatre as a Way of Creating Sense: Performance and Peacebuilding in the Region of the Former Yogoslavia,” Miloševic discusses her process and reflects on performances she created in the midst of the violent civil war that plagued her country. In the beginning of the chapter, she asks some of the same questions that I do: “What is the role and meaning of theatre? What is the responsibility of artists in times of darkness, violence and suffering? Can art, specifically theatre, be a tool for peace?” (29). In examining a few of the performances she created during the war, she seems to find a few different answers to these questions. She describes a piece, titled Maps of Forbidden Remembrance, which was performed in different contexts and for different audiences, having significantly different meanings each time. When performed in Belgrade, the piece served to “create public space for mourning, and to give voice to the silenced history.” When performed in the United States, it “informed people about the tragedy and inspired a similar process of facing the past” (35). This piece is only one example of the many ways that Miloševic and her theatre company create performances that promote peacebuilidng and reconciliation in a region tormented with violence. One of the things that struck me most about all of the performances she describes is the way that performance has the ability to create space—space for truth-telling, space for mourning, space for questioning and challenging, space for community. Also, I was moved by the way that performance is connected to memory, and the way that this memory can be used not to further violence, but to create a future that does not forget the past. Ultimately, Miloševic concludes, “theatre can create a space that allows memory to live in its full dignity—memory that opens the way for the truth to be heard again, and gives voice to the ones who cannot be otherwise heard” (43). So perhaps this, at least partly, is an answer to the question that both Miloševic and I ask. One role of the theatre (and performance and perhaps art in general)  in the midst of violence is to create safe spaces, to remember, and to give voice to the voiceless.

Miloševic, Dijana. “Theatre as a Way of Creating Sense: Performance and Peacebuilding in the Region of the Former Yugoslavia.” Acting Together: Performance and The Creative Transformation of Conflict. Ed. Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, Polly O. Walker. Vol. 1. Oakland: New Village Press, 2011. 23-43. Print.