We can all agree that 2016 was a bit of a train wreck. The good news is that it’s over. The bad news: 2017 doesn’t necessarily look like a bright new dawn. In fact, there is good reason to believe that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. And if we are going to fight back, or at least not slip into some sort of existential despair, then 2017 is going to be the year that we need theatre more than ever. Here’s why:
While today it might seem that live theatre is the private pleasure of the “elites” in opposition to whom much of the current political strife has arisen, the fact is that through most of history, theatre has been the most democratic art form. That’s why Shakespeare was just as eager to include bawdy jokes in his plays for the working-class groundlings as he was to include the ancestors of his royal audience. Although the modern history of theatre has moved away from this egalitarian roots, the DNA of live performance is about near-universal accessibility. What this means today is that theatre can be produced by marginalized people and communities who might never be able to gain admittance to the much more elusive (and expensive) worlds of film and commercial publishing. As a result, theatre has the potential to give voice to more people and to be heard by more people than any other traditional forum of expression, because theatre does not necessarily require things that are frequently denied the most oppressed people around the world: internet access, recording equipment, and even literacy.
Beyond its democratic history, theatre also has the benefit of immediacy. Movies spend years in production, and books can take decades to write. Theatre, on the other hand, can be created quickly, giving it an opportunity for thematic immediacy. This sort of immediacy is absolutely critical for political and protest art. That’s why Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart for the theatre, though previously he had been principally a screenwriter and novelist. In the face of a calamity being met largely with indifference, theatre was the best venue in which to humanize the AIDS crisis. Anything else would have been just too slow. When time is critical (as it so often is), theatre allows for quick responses for art produced and viewed in the moment to which it is responding.
Creating art as a form of political speech in the moment often means that the situation is still evolving, so flexibility is imperative. But a movie once edited is prohibitively expensive to change, and a book once published is set. The paint dries on a painting and it is done. Live theatre, however, is a different matter entirely. Each performance is an opportunity to create anew. This allows theatre to respond to current events and to its audiences. In the midst of turbulent times, flexibility is everything. And theatre’s flexibility gives it the power to become a form of political protest, one that need not seem dated or historical, but can speak to the present as it unfolds.
In a world that is increasingly divisive and small, public gatherings are necessary. They are testaments to trust in community, to the power of diversity, and the joy of living in a world that is bigger than ourselves. While the theatre is obviously not the only occasion for public gatherings, it is a particularly useful one. Theatre can be mounted in spaces both large and small, in places both grand and common. Theatre occasions the opportunity for communities to come together, to sit in darkness, and share a unique, irreproducible journey. There is power in this journey and that power can create change outside of the theatre, long after the lights have gone up.
Much of the power for this journey comes in the fact that this experience is centered around the telling of stories by living, breathing people. This is the cultivation of empathy par excellence and a basic, ancient way in which people learn to relate to each other. This is why the German folklorist Kurt Ranke was absolutely correct when he declared human beings homo narrans—the human creature who tells stories. Storytelling is among our oldest and most human impulses. And the theatre is the most powerful manifestation of that impulse. In the days ahead, in 2017 and beyond, we will need to tell our stories—and to hear other people’s stories. The theatre is the most profound, the most flexible, the most immediate, and the most democratic form in which to tell these stories. And so now it is more important than ever that theatre is created, produced, and seen.