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.

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