Does theatre have a duty to engage with religious or political extremism, and if so, how?

Chris Thorpe, 5 October 2012

Does theatre have a duty to engage with religious or political extremism, and if so, how?

Present (incomplete list)

Selma – performance artist working in Leeds

Chris – writer/performer who suggested topic

Claire – WYP audience member

Jon – AD of Unlimited

Boff – Writer and musician

Tim – AD of Mind the Gap

Jen – Writer

Rich – Invisible Flock

Nick – Journalist

Ric - Producer


Alex – Third Angel

Rachael – Third Angel

Iain - Director

Matthew - Writer and performer

Also about 10-20 other people at various points but haven't got names. I haven't attributed questions or opinions to specific people except in the note at the end.

This write-up is from notes scrawled during a fast-paced discussion that I was also participating in so it's obviously incomplete. Rather than attempt a transcript from memory I've tried to pick out strands of debate and questions that it kept returning to.

This question and the following discussion were connected to a show I've just started making which will be based on a long-term dialogue with a specific right-wing extremist – for the purposes of the discussion I defined this person as a white British person who does not believe in democratic political process, and holds views on race that could be described as white supremacist, as well as, for example supporting Anders Breivik's view that European culture is threatened by forces (be they ‘Cultural

Marxist’ or Islamic) from without and within (and defending Breivik's actions). The show itself will be an attempt to map the development of extremist logic in another human being, but also a test of the psychological processes (particularly confirmation bias) that we use to unconsciously select information that confirms our prejudices and ignore that which doesn't. I wanted to use this developing show as a case study to ask whether in a social/media climate which seems defined (from a liberal perspective) by knee-jerk dismissal rather than dialogue, theatre should be making more of an effort to talk to extremists. Is theatre that takes as its starting point dialogue with seemingly unreasonable viewpoints necessary or even desirable?

Initially – is it a fair assumption that a far greater proportion of people in this particular room would define as liberal or left of centre than would be found a random selection of the same number of people? Probably. Is that representative of theatre makers or audiences as a whole? Probably of theatre makers – hard to tell for audiences – but perhaps a safe assumption that the audience for ‘performance’ or ‘live art’ rather than more traditional theatrical forms has a demographic lean to the liberal/left.

Does a performance outside of the ‘safe’ zone of a characterised play give extremism too much of a platform?

Is the presentation of material in the context of an analysis of a real series of conversations, without the distancing filter of narrative or fictional world, somehow irresponsible?

If so, who is it irresponsible to?

Is there a potential that engagement could confirm or even spark prejudice in the

audience? Or is that a patronising viewpoint that assumes we have to ‘protect’ our audience from potentially harmful ideas?

Who might the audience for this be anyway? If it's there merely to confirm ‘lazy liberalism’ which dismisses ideas as self-evidently ridiculous to satisfy a sense of ‘rightness’ in an audience, isn't it merely replicating the mechanisms it's meant to question? But what if it attracts the ‘wrong’ audience – an audience composed in part of people who support the extremist viewpoints being discussed.

Is that even the ‘wrong’ audience? Do we have a duty to put ideas we violently disagree with on stage in the context of a show based on an analysis of discussion and persuasion rather than proof of invalidity?

There was a fair bit of discomfort expressed at attempting to understand extremists and then relaying their opinions in performance without a counterbalance or a context for their points of view. Is theatre even the right medium?

Why do we need a counterbalance? Can we trust the audience to do some of the questioning of the views themselves? Or is the highest responsibility always to challenge views that could lead in their most extreme form to abuse of human rights and even acts of extreme violence?

Does theatre always have a duty to engage with the ‘why’? What is wrong with saying certain things are wrong?

There was some discussion of instances when a platform has been given in a non-theatrical context. Particularly Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time. Was

the function of that appearance a kind of blood-letting in which mainstream left and right got together to publicly vilify someone whose views are considered beyond the pale by the majority? Is talking to extremists an indulgent way of allowing ‘idiots’ time and opportunity to hang themselves in public with their own ideas?

Was the (repeated) use of the word ‘idiots’ in the discussion even helpful or fair? Is thinking about this stuff actually providing proof of the reflexive dismissal and lazy use of language that engagement with extremism might help us get past?

(The definition of extremism in the discussion doesn't necessarily fit Nick Griffin anyway as he's a believer – at least for now – in power through the democratic process).

There was a reference to the charismatic (white) racist character written by Roy Williams in Sing Your Heart Out For The Lads – as a black British writer, does Williams have more right to talk about racism or extremism? Who has the right? Is writing from specific personal experience in a play compared with attempting a set of structured discussions to make a performance even close to comparing like with like?

Should there be an external safety net for artists working in this area? Who is in place to monitor any psychological changes?

A central and very important point for the developing piece – even given a willingness to engage with extremists, that doesn't presuppose a willingness on their part to engage with us.

We often have our own personal journeys from one mode of thought to another in our

lives – from right-wing teenage racism/homophobia to left-wing political activist opposing these in one case – but is that journey in itself interesting? Do we have a duty to examine journeys that go the other way?

Is focusing on the ‘extreme’ ends of extremism in a way focusing attention on such a minority viewpoint that it's inventing a straw man – creating a problem that doesn't in fact exist? Or does that question ignore the fact that no extremist ideology occurs or acts in isolation – that they are all part of the matrix of influences from media, education, observation and the selective workings of the human mind that constitute society. People die because of these views - so surely it's worth devoting some time to looking at the views and the psychological and social phenomena that allow them to take hold?

Do artists working in this area feel they have to seek ‘permission’ from their peers to do this kind of work? Is that even an issue? Do we ever ask permission?

Is the best position for an artist to give no platform to extremism – should it be excluded from the performance space?

Is there a double standard because of the assumption of theatre as a liberal space – can and should theatre be saying words or giving space to views that would be prosecutable if you said them in the street or in a room above a pub? At what point can we stop using the fact we were ‘pretending’ as an excuse?

The central questions that kept being returned to – in general, but also specific to the developing piece were:

What's the point of this kind of work?


What's its value?

The last two are questions that have to be specifically and meaningfully answered if a project is to engage with extremist thought in particular. But also – they're the questions we should all be asking of the work we make anyway. I'm working on it.

NOTE – before the discussion above there was a really interesting ‘pre-discussion’ that only involved me and Selma as we were the only people there – Selma raised the question of her own politics as an artist – specifically her feminism, and the idea that there's a discomfort for her in putting too much of her politics in her work and potentially being characterised at ‘too political’ and turning an audience off... It kind of posited the idea that an audience could see strong opinions in the artist as ‘extremist’ and this could be problematic. It could be the seed for another really interesting discussion.