Taking Issue with the Theatre Metaphor

I find it interesting (and extremely frustrating) that my art is often used as a means of speaking in a derogative manner about the state of politics —or the way politicians behave. The theatre metaphor is bandied about to describe what we see happening in our legislatures and to describe disingenuous behaviour by politicians. They usually allude to images of drama/theatre as being cheap spectacle or as deception. Just take a few recent headlines, for example: this one from the Associated Press “Trump’s trial starting: ‘Grievous crime’ or just ‘theater’?”, this one from the New York Times: “For Trump, Impeachment is a Show,” and this one from the Evening Standard “Biden’s Inauguration was a nicely judged piece of political theatre after Trump’s four years of garish horror.” There are many more, but I imagine that you, dear reader, can already think of a few headlines or phrases from or about political bodies and persons where you are located that capture the same sentiment.

There are two main things that annoy me about this use of the theatre metaphor: Firstly, it is usually fairly superficial and casts my artform in a negative light; and Secondly, in an atmosphere in which artists are constantly told to “stay in their lane” and out of politics, why is it okay for those in the political field to use the most craven and shallow metaphors referring to my artform that lack depth and cast it in a negative light? This is insulting in so many ways, not the least of which is that politics within liberal democracies could learn a lot about communication, community-building, empathy, and creative problem-solving from my field.

I have to admit that sometimes writers in the political arena will seek to develop the theatre metaphor beyond a headline —perhaps they have some personal experience with the artform, but, in my opinion it still usually casts drama/theatre in the light of being false, deceptive, etc. This narrative is not new and is not only used by those within the political field, but that is what I’m addressing at the moment. Theatre artists spend a great deal of time, energy, and thought to stage each moment in a certain way because they are working to reveal whatever the underlying thought/message that is motivating the piece of theatre to begin with. The careful thought of how an actor delivers a line, where, what else is on the stage, how it is lit, etc. is more about working to reveal more to the audience – not the hide or deceive. Can these same processes that theatre artists use be employed for deception? Absolutely – but to cast all theatre artists as doing this and to paint the entire field with that broad brush is deceitful and harmful not only to artists working in the field, but to people outside of the theatre field who may not know much about it, but are constantly bombarded with this negative imagery so they may never give it a chance.

To my second issue —the effort to create a division between art and politics (especially in “western” liberal democracies, Yaron Ezrahi writes in his book, Imagined Democracies: Necessary Political Fictions, “the liberal democratic compartmentalization of politics has never been more than an illusion, a fiction useful enough to delegitimize the unauthorized manipulation of the arts to influence politics by means of emotions, passions, and aesthetic experience, while professing to contain it within the boundaries of reason, transparency, rational deliberation, and moderation.” Meanwhile those in the political realm have been cherry-picking and borrowing tools from our artform in efforts to craft their image/ideas in often very disingenuous ways —which is vile. At least for most of my lifetime, people in the political field have intentionally worked to discredit artists and what they have to say about the society we are living in as “frivolous” and unimportant. This view is wrong. Firstly —we ALL have important roles to play in our liberal democratic societies, regardless of our profession or lack of one. Secondly, artists especially have much to offer —and for my part, my PhD dissertation takes up the argument for applied drama artists. While all the nuances of my current research won’t quite fit into a short blog, suffice to say that the dialogic and community-building capacity of applied drama praxis could provide a model for community engagement in liberal democracies —and the collective knowledge-building that occurs within these settings holds promise for a reinvigoration of the public sphere.

While I know my rant won’t change the use of the theatre metaphor in the political arena, I do hope that it at least raises awareness of the hollowness with which it is often invoked and inspire people to investigate that idea further.

How Drama/Theatre Prepared Me for Living through a Pandemic while working on a PhD

The past few months as I have checked in with colleagues who are working toward their PhD, I have to admit I have done so with a feeling of guilt. So many intelligent and hardworking early career researchers I know have struggled over the past year due to the pandemic —struggled for access to resources needed for their research to continue and dealing with the frustration around that, struggled to focus on continuing to research and write while the world feels in such disarray, struggled with taking on the role of caring for elderly parents who needed to cocoon while continuing to produce research, stressed and worried over how their PhD might be funded if they have to extend because of the setbacks of COVID, and struggled emotionally and mentally with the toll and strain of it all. And in all of that struggling, many are behind on their research. I feel guilt because somehow, in the insanity of last year, I managed to not only continue my research, but produce the greatest amount of work in a given time period since my research began. 

A few times I have written this off as “luck” or finding solace/peace in my research while the chaos of the world reigned around me. Due to the pandemic I was separated from my partner for eleven months and watched my country struggle from across an ocean with our very democracy at stake. I’ll definitely say that it wasn’t un-stressful! However, I DID get lucky that I did not require the use of archived materials from museums and institutions that had shut down. I regained access to the library within three months of the initial lockdown and had stored away enough books prior to the lockdown that they had gotten me through. However, I had a huge issue to handle —the initial scope of my project included a series of in-person workshops that would have needed to be scheduled for autumn 2020. Even in March I felt there was little chance I would be able to accomplish this and knew that I wouldn’t be able to reach out to contacts to plan a series of workshops like that given the current crisis. I had to rethink my research. I had to adapt.

Happily, after much thought, I came to an answer that I not only liked —I now think it is actually far superior to my original idea. The solution I came up with was to survey and interview facilitators of applied drama in order to assess the deliberative and democratic qualities of the form in practice, in reality. I firmly believe this was actually the best route for my idea because I think it will give me vital information that will affect the way I will eventually (Post-doc?!) run the series of in-person workshops. I think in my initial eagerness to try out my idea, I overlooked this important step and I’m actually grateful that the pandemic forced me/gave me time to rethink it by making the first idea impossible without a HUGE delay.

With that problem solved – I began to write…and write…and write. I am amazed at the writing I produced last year —and all of it much better than writing I had done earlier…I was improving. Most of my days were spent reading, making notes, checking in on the news, writing, going outside for a walk/run, and then repeating those five things over and over again during the day. I didn’t force myself to do this – it is just what happened. Though somewhere in there I managed to rearrange my room to make it easier to work in. And no matter how upset I would get at missing my partner and despite the rage I felt after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd…I continued to read, make notes, and write. Sometimes I needed to take time away for a day or two, like when peaceful protestors were attacked outside the White House to make way for Donald Trump to hold a Bible upside down in front of a church for a photoshoot…but then I was back at it. Perhaps because I earnestly feel in my heart that my research could make a difference with what is happening right now in democracies around the world where the communication has broken down so completely that people are not listening to one another, people are not empathising with those outside their personal bubbles, and rather than a spirit of collaborative problem-solving there is combativeness —the idea of one side winning or losing and no recognition that unless we all win, we all lose.

A few nights ago I had a thought —as I was thinking once again about my colleagues who were/are struggling and why I just don’t feel like I am…I began to think about why I seemed to be adjusting and finding the flexibility to keep digging into my research and as things with me usually do, it came back to my exposure to and continuous involvement in the arts as a child and through my adulthood. In drama/theatre you are constantly being told to find new solutions, a new way of working…I heard “try something different” from directors so many times I can’t count – and then I became a director and would encourage my actors to do the same. Try a different tactic to accomplish that task. And sometimes it felt so impossible that I couldn’t move, I would be paralyzed with fear/shame/guilt and tears would roll down my face… but I eventually did it, I would try something and the world didn’t end and I wasn’t mocked for the new tactic for being “wrong,” I was encouraged to continue experimenting. This is true in unscripted theatre work as well, anyone who has ever participated in or witnessed improvisation…well, its ALL about being flexible, adjusting, and making the scene work.

Whenever you’re working to put together a production it always seems like some emergency or other pops up and whether you’re part of the crew onstage or off, you have to adapt, find a new way, find a solution, but keep the show going. Take time to take a break and reflect on what happened afterward and forgive yourself for things that may have gone wrong and think about how to improve upon it in the future, but in the moment, figure out a solution. I know some actors who LOVE when things go wrong on stage, they have shared that they feel a thrill when the scene needs to be saved and they must think on their feet and adjust. Now, I never loved when something like that happened, but sometimes when I thought back on a moment that had gone awry —and yes the audience didn’t know it because we all adjusted well together— I felt a sense of pride. We didn’t adjust and keep going simply because “the show must go on.” We did it because we cared about what we were doing and felt passionately the production brought value to our lives and to those in our audience. It wasn’t something imposed on us that we were threatened with, it was something we wanted because we cared so much about what we were doing. I feel that way with my research. I feel passionately about my research and I genuinely want it to go on, to keep on, to get out into the world and make a difference. With all my heart that is what I want, and so there is my focus. I think that I have been involved in this field for so long that this spirit of adaptability has become one of the ways I cope with or handle bizarre situations in real life.

So…yeah…in a weird way, the art of drama/theatre prepared me for handling life during a global pandemic in the middle of my PhD research.