Political theatre - (how) does it work?

Catherine Guy, 3 July 2012

Attended by Dave Lockwood, Amy, Martin, Eve, Fran, Gill Kick, Andy Burden, Carrie Rhys-Davies, Bob, Sarah, Rosie, Catherine Guy with Harold

By ‘political theatre’ I suppose I mean theatre which is communicating a message or a viewpoint with the aim of creating debate or social change. How do you make political theatre without shouting at or patronising your audience?

First you have to know what your message is, and what your position is, before you try to communicate it. Are you going to make your approach a full stop or a question? Do you want to make something enduring or something ephemeral? Political theatre is a broad church.

Escapism can work – people like to be distanced from their own lives and from the subject matter of the play, historically or geographically, via access to another world or a culture other than their own, or through humour. Woza Albert! approaches apartheid with humour. Clowning can flip an issue – make it funny, but still communicate a point. Dario Fo filled stadiums in Italy in the seventies with his political, funny plays. Just because something is popular and entertaining doesn't mean it is not worthwhile. An Inspector Calls had a powerful message to communicate about middle-class women being in a state of desperation. Wah! Wah! Girls – A British Bollywood Musical is a political show but entertaining. Would its audience go back to the venue to watch something else, though? Is theatre a tool for social mobility? And does engagement

with theatre make you middle-class? Privileged?

Fascination with a way of life that is very different to your own – the Upstairs Downstairs phenomenon – might make a play with political content appealing (e.g. Posh). Farces are back in fashion – a symptom of hard times: 1930s syndrome – sombre shows tend to be less popular in times of widespread economic stress. If you don't label something as political theatre you'll maybe reach a wider audience. Stan's Café don't call their work political theatre but The Just Price of Flowers makes a political point, whilst managing to be commercially and critically successful. Overtly political shows can have a great impact, though: The Great Game toured in the USA and Pentagon officials watched it. Henry VIII and the Royal Wedding Planner was political and a success.

By becoming a troubadour and doing street theatre, taking theatre out into the community, you can reach more people. In Bristol, Show of Strength and in Coventry Theatre Absolute have taken over abandoned shops. Recently a house in St George in Bristol hosted a piece about domestic violence by Common Wealth (who do describe themselves as political theatre makers). There is a show which is an evening with Adolf Hitler – an intimate conversation with an actor who gives a good impersonation of him (note: is it this show?). How effective is that particular show, though? Maybe some distance is needed – if the actor is too good you concentrate on the actor's performance and not on the message he is trying to communicate.

In Belarus Free Theatre's Minsk 2011. A reply to Kathy Acker the performers, rather than acting, spoke of their own experiences. The audience didn't feel alienated. People bought tickets for this show even though they knew it would be harrowing – it's a unique experience; live theatre is stimulating; it gave an insight into other people's

lives. Lots of Twitter responses made for an increase in sales. Social media can raise awareness of plays and increase equality of access to them. Web algorithms control what we see when we are looking for information online but after a big episode of Eastenders, there will be a watercooler moment – the episode is discussed spontaneously the next day by loads of people. Rather than a sudden change, what tends to happen is there's an accrual – responses to a programme or a show add to the ‘subconscious gravel’ – like building a seashore. Does TV do it better because it has a bigger audience? Or film? Braveheart influenced Scottish nationalism – Scotland is now on its way to independence, which has something to do with shared consciousness and the film coming at the right time.

The Bike Shed Theatre put on a series of shorts recently because they were interested in creating a debate. There is a fear that there is a risk of a ‘lost generation’ with younger people having fewer conversations. Look Back In Anger reflected its times – younger people who saw it when it came out found it funny in a way that older people didn't. It's important to admit where you are yourself as you get older, and to listen to young people's reactions and understand what is going on there. Is theatre something you grow into? Jamie's Dream School showed kids being taken to see Simon Callow performing, and behaving disrespectfully, but perhaps it just didn't interest them. If young people are being stretched or challenged by the culture that you are presenting them with, then you need to give them some support in meeting it. Kids text through performances sometimes because they've been made to attend the performance, and they find it boring – however, at the Roses Theatre there are cheaper seats at the back that you can occupy if you are prepared to tweet about the show.

Can funded theatre be anti-establishment or does that risk funding? How much can

commercial theatre take risks or present difficult subjects as it needs to earn its living? Having a theatre building is expensive and requires popular shows to pay for it. The Everyman Theatre is only allowed Arts Council funding if it puts on edgier shows, but it has to have some commercially successful shows to keep going.

People will go on a big dipper at a fairground but not go for an emotional big dipper experience at a theatre – less comfortable with this. If the fourth wall is taken down, if clapping between movements or acts doesn't take place, the veil is removed between audience and the performance.

Cultural background affects how people interpret or participate in theatre. Ownership – not alienating your audience. The novel doesn't, poetry does, perhaps?

Can artists come up with the questions, or does it need to come from the community? Place bubbles up issues which lead to a political message. Writing political stuff can be about being right-on / trendy / relevant rather than being honest or sincere.

'Smile or Die' RSA lecture – about finding problems and solutions. Social mobility – again, does theatre make you middle-class? Privileged?

Do we need political theatre most when times are really hard? Is there a correlation between election turn-out and amount of political theatre? They both indicate political engagement.


street theatre, Tricycle Theatre, political theatre, ownership, political engagement, Minsk 2011. A reply to Kathy Acker, fourth wall, The Just Price of Flowers, politics,

debate, Dario Fo, Jamie's Dream School, alienation technique, Posh, Theatre Absolute, Show of Strength, Everyman Theatre, Woza Albert!, John Osborne, Wah! Wah! Girls – A British Bollywood Musical, Stan's Café, Look Back In Anger, social mobility, escapism, election turnout, Andy Burden, cultural background, Belarus Free Theatre, Bike Shed Theatre, An Inspector Calls, Brecht, Common Wealth, social change

Comments: 2

Gill Kirk, 5 July 2012

What a brilliant report - everything captured, coherently AND with hyperlinks - thanks, Catherine! This is a keeper for my wall!

Catherine Guy, 10 July 2012

Thanks Gill! I meant to get in touch with you to make sure I hadn't got the wrong end of the stick with some points but it had already taken so long for me to write it up I thought I'd better get on with it. Good session, thanks everyone