On theatre as an (urgent) public good

When I started this blog in March 2013, I picked as its tagline “because pedagogy is a public practice.” This choice was an homage to my time at the University of Texas at Austin’s “performance as public practice” research stream. (That was back in 2005, but PPP is still going strong in the Department of Theatre and Dance.) It was at UT that I discovered, for real, just what a public good theatre could be; sure, I’d been studying art through a social lens for some time, but in Austin, working with acclaimed feminist and queer theorist Jill Dolan, and watching performance workers – from Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin to the Rude Mechs and even my own colleagues – making stuff that impacted directly on the well-being of often-marginalised communities around us, suddenly the logic of it really hit home for me. It shaped the teacher I would become, in every way.

When bad stuff happens in or to the public spheres in which I live and work, I turn to theatre and performance for solace. For grace. And for help: theatre is, as Brazilian director Augusto Boal famously said, after all a rehearsal for the revolution. Not a violent one, but one based in shared dialogue, discovery, enchantment, and exploration. These are the things – the inherently democratic things – that happen at the (public) theatre.

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Boal in New York, 2008

Last Wednesday night I went to see a show, and when I woke up the next morning I realised that I had seen no less than three pieces of theatre since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This was entirely an accident: it’s that time of term on university campuses when the stuff students have been working on since September goes up on public view. But it was also, of course, no accident at all.

Sometimes in the wake of high term, when the work is lying around in messy piles and the nights are dark and cold and my HEAD.ALWAYS.HURTS, I say no thanks to the theatre and stay home to brood. But this November, brooding seems a big mistake. I’d rather be in public, in that “special” public space where we share an urge to understand our world, to see it better together.

Anyone on earth with a social media account knows where my scare quotes around the word “special” above come from: The Donald reacted with a typical, historical, epic fail to Brandon Victor Dixon’s address from the stage (and toward VP-elect Mike Pence) at the end of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton one night last week.

Here’s the clip of Dixon speaking after the curtain call:

In reaction, Trump tweeted:

Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!

The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

As gazillions of theatre scholars, critics, and lay commentators have since noted, Dixon was doing nothing “harassing”, but was rather respecting both Pence and the audience enough to use the stage for the purpose for which it was designed: the provision of public discussion, in the public’s very best interest. (My favourite of the many commentaries I’ve seen so far is here, by J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail.)

So: in honour of Dixon and the cast’s bravery (for it is brave indeed to take on a powerful man with no knowledge of the past, and no boundaries in the present), and in homage to the incredible potential of the theatre in times of public crisis, I offer below three brief reviews of the three shows I saw in the wake of Trump’s election.

And, in the spirit of efficacious arts reviewing – reviewing as a public practice, let’s say – in each case I highlight not who or what was “good” or “better” or “bad” on stage, but rather how each contributed to the public discourse, at this urgent time.

Stop #1: The Daisy Theatre

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The colourful, whimsical curtain at The Daisy Theatre

Ronnie Burkett is one of the most talented puppeteers on earth; Torontonians are proud to claim him, but he’s actually an Alberta boy. He designs and makes all of his puppets (with help, of course – there are dozens in each show), but he operates them alone on stage, creating brimming worlds of animated wooden bodies with dozens of diverse stories to tell. Burkett is openly gay, and his puppets are the queerest around. They are those whose human avatars we’d prefer to ignore, out on the street. At the puppet show, though, we can never turn away.

The Daisy Theatre is an old-time variety show, which I saw at London’s McManus Studio on November 9. Like the best cabaret, it mixes raunchy set pieces with hilarious, pointed, topical improvisation – and so it was the night after the election, when Ronnie inserted plenty of political banter, including a marvellous exchange between the carnies “Franz” and “Schnitzel”.

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Rude mechanical Franz, and queer child Schnitzel; The Daisy Theatre by Ronnie Burkett

In this particular post-election schtick, Franz attempted to explain the difference between “stage left” and “stage right”; Schnitzel got it spot on, in the end. (Ex: Schnitzel to Franz, “…is it my imagination, or, since I’ve been over here on the right… Franz… have I GOTTEN WHITER???”) That kind of stuff delivers the laughs, even in a white, conservative town like London, ON – because it’s frankly pretty hard not to laugh at puppet banter, especially when Ronnie is working his hardest to make his space of extraordinary difference (queer puppeteer; queer puppets; 16x rating…) as welcoming to all comers as possible.

And truly, for me, this is the most political thing about Ronnie Burkett: he will not compromise his content or his politics, ever, but he will aim to make the space in which he delivers that content inclusive enough to enable an experience across difference for all spectators. That’s not the same as making theatre “safe”, as Trump’s notorious tweet put it. The crucial difference: Ronnie makes his puppet theatre a safe space to do uncomfortable, challenging things. That’s as it should be.

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Ronnie with members of the cast of The Daisy Theatre

Stop #2: Hamlet’s Bad Quarto “done good”

My department’s fall show this year was offered in honour of Shakespeare’s 400th death day (1616 – 2016). Rather than doing Hamlet the old-fashioned way (SO BORING!), director Jo Devereux chose the “bad” quarto, in which “to be or not to be” is not “the question” but “the point”, and various other bits and pieces of venerable text are mashed about in a script that’s not, well, fully baked yet. The show Jo mounted was huge: an on-stage musical quintet provided melodies written for the occasion; a pre-show invocation came complete with tumbling and drunken rabble-rowsing; and there were enough speakers in the end to yield a curtain call two full rows thick. Put all that together in a tiny black box theatre at London’s terrific downtown arts incubator, and, well… you get a cheek-by-jowl experience that’s anything but literally “safe”.

In that kind of a venue, every single actor takes a massive risk: you’re just so close to your audience that every mistake will be seen and noted. And when you’re not an experienced actor, well, the risks multiply: what if they see me mess up and know I’m no good? (I have so, SO been there.) But not one of Jo’s brave cast let that stop them, nor were they cowed by the complex poetry (even in drafty form) of the world’s most famous wordsmith. In fact, if there is one thing this performance of the “bad quarto” taught its audiences, it is that even Shakespeare isn’t so incredibly sacred – because nothing is. Even Shakespeare wrote some serious crap!

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The terrific Q1 Hamlet poster: “the bad quarto done good”

Speaking Billy Shakespeare’s “messed up” lines on a tiny stage, sometimes imperfectly, these actors reminded me of the political, public power of messing up, of learning from error, and of then moving on and through to do better next time. This is a lesson, indeed, for right now – and for those about to stand up on much bigger stages.

Stop #3: 12 Angry Men

The following week, it was time for Western University’s celebrated independent student theatre troupe to put up their fall drama. Theatre Western‘s AD Hailey Hill chose 12 Angry Men as the script back in the summer (presciently, as it turned out), and in a gladiatorial arena-style space, with banks of seats on all four sides, the resulting production unfolded in perfectly-choreographed black and white (though it was blind-cast to include persons of multiple genders and colours), directed expertly by students Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix.

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The blood-red powerful poster for the spare, revealing Twelve Angry Men, directed by Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix for Theatre Western

The play begins in certainty and rage: a young man is on trial for murdering his father in an inner city Chicago ghetto, and all but one of the jurors (white, male) around the table are sure he’s guilty. But then doubts begin to rise; the lone holdout is invited to speak about his (in this case, her) “reasonable doubt”, and gradually, by talking reasonably and calmly about the facts before them, the group around the table comes to the conclusion that there simply is not enough evidence, barring prejudice, to convict.

Sitting in one of the four front rows with my colleague MJ, I was at turns stunned, moved to laughter, gut-wrenched, and so proud of our students for pulling off one of the hardest tricks in performance.

They took a script by a white guy, half a century old, about white men’s pain, and they used its own words, its bare narrative, to tease out its much broader and more diverse nuances. Then they put it up in front of a raw audience, just ten days post-election, and let the text speak, subtly but with extraordinary resonance, to the moment we are in right now.

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Trisha Kershaw as Juror #5

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The cast at work around the jury table

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David DiBrina and Alex Gaistman as Jurors 7 and 8

How can we get past glib certainty and back to conversation? From prejudice back to the power of fact, of hardscrabble information carefully and fairly parsed? From yelling at each other across a breach to speaking with generosity of spirit across a table?

These are open questions. They are the kinds of questions implied in Brandon Victor Dixon’s words to Mike Pence from the stage last week. They are the kinds of questions the theatre, democracy’s most powerful public space, always, always asks.

They are not, however, safe questions. They are anything but safe.

Kim

On teaching in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential Election

I am a Canadian; that means I live my life in solidarity with the human beings living, working, and fighting for social justice across the Americas, from the tip of Patagonia to the top of the arctic. Many of these individuals come from historically oppressed populations; many live still within populations fighting daily oppression, racism, sexism, and deep prejudice based on wealth and class.

The election of Mr Trump on Tuesday evening in the United States tore a very deep gash in my heart. It provided, like Brexit in the United Kingdom in June, an open invitation for those who hate and who fear minority populations to get down to the business of unrestrained anger and violence against them. I felt numb most of yesterday, and had a hard time reading the news. I still have not listened to any of the speeches made in the wake of the result. As with the debates, when I turned toward the video I felt a surge of nausea in my core. I had to look away.

It’s a really good thing I did not have to teach yesterday, then.

In the meantime, however, a number of my friends and colleagues in the US and beyond got down to the business of responding to the result, and of figuring out how to talk to our students in the wake of the election and its emotional fallout. I am enormously grateful to them for doing work I simply could not face yesterday.

We are teachers; we are the keepers of safe classroom spaces where respectful disagreement and debate happen. We are the guides who help to shape strong, thoughtful citizens. We are the ones who must now step forward, to provide the ideas, the tone, the strategies for critical thinking that were so lacking over the course of this election, and which will be the only way back to a shared centre ground in the years to come.

There is an awful lot, fellow teachers, for us to do in the months ahead.

Because we are teachers, with incredible social and intellectual privilege, it is our ethical duty not to get up in front of our students and declare our political allegiances as though those allegiances are the norm or the “correct” path forward. But it is also our obligation to share our all-too-human experiences of sorrow and anger with our students, and thus to make space for our students to share theirs in turn.

It is also our obligation and our ethical responsibility to speak out, everywhere, against hate.

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How can we do this in ways that respect our classroom differences, make way for difference to be discussed honestly and respectfully among the young people in our care, and yet also acknowledge the raw rage and terror many of us are feeling? It’s a very hard task indeed.

To go some way toward a reply to this question, I’d like to share some writing that came across my Facebook feed yesterday morning. It is a letter to her students written by NYU instructor and graduate student Christina Squitieri, and it is reproduced here with her kind permission.

I know what most of you are feeling right now. You’re scared, you’re angry, you’re anxious, you’re confused, you feel betrayed, lied to, devalued, denied your legitimacy and your personhood. Some of you may be rejoicing about your candidate, but others, I’m sure, are angry and afraid of what this means for them, for their friends, for their families.

I know, because that’s what I’m feeling right now. Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds anger, and anger breeds hate. America is angry and scared and filled with hate right now, and the push of anti-intellectualism has helped, if not ushered in, the rise of Donald Trump. People who have never seen a Muslim, or Mexican, or person of color, are scared that they are taking away their rights; people who feel like they are losing their power over everything – they have lost jobs, they can’t make ends meet, their vision of the American Dream or the way their fathers were “king of their castle” and had supreme authority over their wives and children is rapidly disappearing, if not entirely gone. They are scared and angry, and hate the people who they feel like took their power away from them.

They see, in Donald Trump, an image of their American Dream, that it can still happen. That a repulsive man can be fantastically wealthy and have beautiful women fawn all over him, can have mistresses and wives, and can show that man can still dominate, just as men always have. And he is telling them that people they do not deem as rightfully Americans are the only one standing in their way of achieving that dream. It’s fucked up and desperate, and more than anything, it is not sustainable. Nationalist policies never last long, because the people who come together – the people who the leader said were not worthy of being people – always triumph when they show love and respect for one another. It takes time, but I promise.

But I’m here to tell you that, in spite of how this election played out, education works. The community we build while in college fosters individual growth, fosters community, fosters mutual understanding and respect. Every day, when you go to class, and you are challenged to think beyond what you know or expect, you are becoming wiser and more compassionate individuals. Every conversation or debate you have with a classmate, you challenge yourselves to think better, to be open-minded, not to just hear but to listen to another side.

In our class on Fridays, I watch as you build on each other’s comments, how you agree and respectfully disagree, how you stop yourselves and say, well, I never thought of it that way. How you learn and respect each other, and how you grow as better thinkers, better writers, better critics, and better people.

This election has been about dividing us, pitting us against one another, and refusing to listen to the other side. As we move forward, I encourage you all to listen, to respect, to try to understand. You’re smart, and empowered, and made more compassionate by your education, by our in-class discussions, by the writing you do and by the listening you do. You learn to be empathetic and understanding, to support your ideas with facts (and textual evidence!), and to listen to the other side. Time and time again, this works. It may not feel that way right now, but it does.

Learn more, read more, speak out more, listen more. And go out into this world with that same respect, empathy, and compassion. It will be difficult, more difficult that debating what Mary Wroth’s sonnets mean, but it’s so important. Now is not the time to riot in the streets, but to respect the democratic process, and to learn where our assumptions lie and how we can begin to dismantle them. I promise to challenge myself to do the same.

This election does not mean we can stop speaking out against hate speech. It does not mean that we can be lazy and allow the nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Mexican, anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-disabled, anti-everyone-who-isn’t-white,-male,-Protestant-and-heterosexual language to continue. We need to fight it, we need to speak out against it, but we need to do that respectfully, with each other. Not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on social media. We need to speak with each other – face-to-face – and listen. Without a doubt, misogyny ran this election. We need to think about how we talk about women and what we take for granted, just like we need to think about how we talk about Muslims, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, African-Americans, people with disabilities, non-Christians.

I can assure you, while Trump’s rhetoric is disgusting and hateful, not everyone in America voted for that hate. Some did, yes, but others did not. Some want change. An economy that they don’t understand but think a change will work. A future for themselves and for their children that they don’t see happening under “more of the same.”

From a political science perspective, after eight years of one party, the party of the president always switches. We need to have faith that our three branches of government will work, and that some of the most racist and xenophobic policies won’t pass the House and Senate. We need to have faith that our system of checks and balances will prevail. America has weathered some terrible storms, but we have always gotten through them. I have faith that we can get through this one, as well.

Christina finishes her letter by encouraging her students to visit the Wellness Exchange Centre on their campus, and I’ll end here by suggesting we all do the same: remind students they are not alone, however they are feeling, and direct them toward the resources on our campuses that can provide immediate support. We must also not feel embarrassed to seek them out ourselves.

In solidarity with you all, and with thanks once more to Christina for sharing her thoughts,

Kim

 

Talking to students about Clinton vs Trump

I’ve not been watching any of the U.S. presidential debates – neither of the two main events, nor the VP candidates’ debate. This isn’t because of disinterest or distance; on the contrary, as a Canadian I’m uncomfortably close to and heavily invested in the outcome of this contest, and as a woman and a feminist I could not imagine the stakes to be higher. The campaign has become nothing less than a referendum on misogyny: a man who revels in violent language, casually admits to sexual harassment, and displays bald-faced ignorance of raced and gendered realities (alongside a swath of sociopathic behaviours) is up against a talented, openly feminist woman with three decades’ worth of experience in federal politics. There’s just no other way to sign it.

The reason I’m not watching the debates is because they cause me profound, deeply-felt anxiety; it’s just so exhausting, upsetting, too hard. (For many women, it has been triggering. Trump is a bully and a predator; watching that behaviour in others, when you’ve been personally victimised, can leave you emotionally shattered and physically ill.) Of course I eat up the commentary afterward – in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I obsessively check Twitter and Facebook for reactions. I look for balance – what did the left think? What the right? – in an effort to figure out what a cross-section of us are really thinking. I know this is a fool’s errand, but it has become compulsive behaviour for me.

I’m terrified.

When I walk into my classrooms, I look at my students and wonder hard what they are thinking. Are they watching? Are they fearful like me? Is Clinton v. Trump on their radar? Are any of them Trump supporters – or simply not sure? (How can you not be sure?!?! I fear blurting out to them…)

Given the raw abrasion I’m experiencing, I’m understandably very much afraid to bring the election, in any detail, up in classes. Quite apart from the fact that it’s not professional for a university professor to express her specific political views in the classroom (we have enormous influence, and students still believe, sometimes quite rightly, that profs want them to parrot views back to them), I honestly can’t imagine mediating a reasonable conversation about this election campaign with students right now. It’s too hot a button – for me if not for many of them.

And yet. And yet. At this moment, in America and its spheres of influence (which, let’s be honest, is still most of us), nuanced conversation is under siege. Reasoned debate has flown the coop – Trump is working hard to suffocate all space for it. As Kenneth Pennington wrote in the Guardian Monday morning, the Trump circus is depriving Americans of exactly the kind of discussions citizens of an advanced democracy deserve to be having at a crucial juncture in their nation’s political and economic history. They are already losers in this contest, but, if there is anything yet to be salvaged, it’s the future of difficult ideas in the American public sphere.

Which means that now more than ever, my students – students across North America, and beyond – need to talk about this election. They deserve the tools of critical engagement and nuanced expression our arts and humanities classes foster, precisely because Trump mocks the notion that complex, nuanced arguments are a social good. They have a right to dissect the orchestration and dissemination of his, as well as Clinton’s, political performances. They have a right for a strong basis for careful judgement.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to give my students the intellectual means to make sense of what is happening right in front of them, even if I choose not to invite an open discussion of debate specifics, or of Trump’s most astonishing, demeaning statements.

The question, of course, then becomes: how?

This autumn I’m teaching a second-year core theatre studies course called “performance beyond theatres”; it’s essentially an introduction to performance studies, the interdisciplinary field that examines the performative dimensions of social and cultural behaviour in a wide array of contexts. Luckily, one of those contexts is politics; politicians are rhetoricians, after all, and rhetorics is talk-as-show.

Performance Beyond Theatres gives me a natural opening for political discussion, but it also offers me the chance to ground that discussion in forensic description and textual analysis, which together let us unpack political behaviours with a (relatively) objective eye. I find this relative objectivity very useful: nobody need openly stake a claim to a “side” in order to participate in the discussion. Rather, we examine together how politicians enact their personae, how they use language to inculcate the realities they want us to believe in, and how we, as interested and critically attuned audiences, might react in turn. (Between fire-brand high-fiving and utter disbelief, there are a number of options.)

How does this work? When we explored ritual performance near the beginning of term (with anthropologist Victor Turner), we looked to Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech (available on Youtube) to help us understand the moment of a ritual subject’s “reintegration” into a community. (The context, from our reading, was a new leader preparing to take up the mantel of authority.) Paying attention to Obama’s tone, his affect, the stage set-up, and his choice of words, we were able to talk about the role his “community” – voters; actors on social media; producers and consumers of more traditional media; denizens in the audience in Chicago that autumn night – played in shaping and affirming his status as winner of the election, an ordinary man who had been through the fires of the campaign to emerge victorious as “their leader”. Today in class, we are watching Justin Trudeau’s 2015 acceptance speech alongside our reading of J.L. Austin’s theory of performative language; we will be analysing the ways in which Trudeau’s vocal performance was crafted to enact his governance ethos and promise all-important “change” to Canadians – in other words, to “do” political things, even before he had done a single, real thing as the new prime minister.

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Did you know Justin was once a drama teacher? Outstanding training for PM. (And: he has an arts degree. THAT is what you do with it.)

I sincerely hope that, a year from now, I won’t be switching Obama out for Trump’s victory speech; frankly, Hillary Clinton’s will be (WILL BE) both more inspiring and far more instructive for future students of political performance. At the end of the day, that’s what makes me most angry about this season of Trump trash: he is an utter waste of time, space, and energy, and my students and I have far better things to do with ours.

All this said, I know many of you, especially those of you reading from the U.S., will have brought the election up directly, and at length, in classes; I’d be very keen to hear how you’ve done it, and with what results. Please leave comments! You have my respect and admiration. (And to those of you reading from a campus where guns, concealed or not, are allowed by law, I cannot fathom the risks you take every day to bring up matters critical, if not political.)

Stay strong!

Kim