Is theatre political?

Convener(s): Tom Mansfield 

Participants: Emma Adams, Shakera Louise Ahad, Sharon Matthews, Meenakshi Sharma, Paschale Straiton, many butterflies, bumblebees and people whose names I totally failed to write down…

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

In a word – yes – we started from the basis that everything’s political. In life, and therefore in theatre, we are constantly engaging in power relationships between people. The question becomes how we as theatre-makers can confront those power dynamics, and how we can use theatre as a tool to dissect those dynamics in the wider world. When we talk about politics are we really discussing ideology – the idea that the world should be a certain way and that people should behave in particular ways to achieve that.

Audiences and marketers are often put off by the idea of “political theatre” – it takes us back to the idea of some kind of 1970s banner-waving protest art – but is this situation beginning to change with shows like Enron, Katrina, and the Jean Charles de Menezes plays? We discussed work that we’d seen that explicitly engages with major political issues – often, like the Hurricane Katrina show, these were most successful when dealing with individuals’ stories and without necessarily explicitly dealing with the “politics” of it.

Venues too are often discouraged by work that seems “too political” and we discussed whether it would be right to “smuggle the politics in”, or whether if we want to make political work we should be explicit about it. As artists, none of us were keen to be seen as trying to preach to an audience, and we kept coming back to the idea of storytelling as a vehicle for politics rather than the other way round. While a political issue or a specific incident might be the starting point for a piece of work, the most successful political theatre is good theatre as much as it is good politics. How explicit or implicit political ideas are within a piece may just depend on the piece we’re working on…or our own tastes as artists.

As a live form, our advantage is that we have a group of people assembled in a particular place at a particular time, who respond both as a group and as individuals. We discussed how we might help audiences to participate in and respond to political work – this could range from formal post-show discussions to conversations with artists in the bar afterwards, using social networking sites and our companies’/venues’ websites to get feedback. We were also intrigued by trying to find ways of getting the audience involved in debate/discussion during the show itself – is this possible? What opportunities does it present?

In theatre, our industrial structure gives us a huge advantage over film and TV in that we are able to reconsider everything afresh each time we create a new piece of work – we’re not restricted by the cultural and political assumptions of the mass media. We need to keep challenging our own assumptions – while the temptation is always to find the right tribe of people to work with, we also need to avoid forming cliques. Working with collaborators, material and audiences with which we’re not familiar can be a way of keeping ourselves fresh and opening ourselves up to new ideas. If we’re going to question the society we live in then of course we need to keep questioning ourselves.

Many of us had found that the very process of working on a politically engaged piece of theatre had changed the way we think about the world more broadly – by working on a piece of art we learn not just as artists but as individuals within society. How we then apply those political changes in our theatre-making could take all kinds of ways – but we all agreed that we need to keep aware of the politics that exists both inherently and explicitly in our theatre.