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Playwrights as Activists

22 March 2016

Last Saturday was the NSW Writers’ Centre bi-annual Playwriting Festival. The Artistic Director was my fellow 7-ONer Hilary Bell, and she brought together a fabulous and diverse line-up of young and older writers, of established, well-established and new voices. Plus a few gatekeeper-people. I chaired the panel Playwrights as Activists. This was my introduction:


I’m going to start with Robin Hood.
As a kid one of my favourite TV programs was The Adventures of Robin Hood. Grainy black and white half-hours on their umpteenth repeat. What I only recently learnt is that this series about forest-dwelling outlaws was scripted by outlaws—screenwriters blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Robin Hood myth has no hobbits, fairy godmothers, or religious subtext. Instead of a moral, there’s a plan of action. Robin Hood acts: he takes from the rich and gives to the poor.
What’s not to like?

‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ wrote W H Auden—albeit in a poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats who was a politician and activist as well as a writer.
Does theatre make anything happen?
We’re often told that writing doesn’t change anything. It only serves to appease the rage in the writer’s heart. Yet on the other hand, writing is said to hurt people’s feelings and stir up discord. And writers are killed and imprisoned for their words. Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman and Burmese poet Maung Saungkha to name two recent examples. Doesn’t this suggest that writing does indeed have an impact on the world?

From the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Living Newspapers of Russia, the revolutionary operas of North Korea, from Brecht to Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children to Tina Fey channelling Sarah Palin, the stage has long been a place where political issues are aired, explored, asserted and satirised.

When we talk about political playwriting or theatre-making, what is it we actually mean? Are we talking about choice of subject matter? How a show is made, and with whom? Or the audiences and communities who receive the work?

Do the politics have to be explicit for theatre to be political? Or can it be theatre which makes us pause and reflect on how stories are usually told, and what happens if they’re told in radically different ways.

‘The personal is political’ was a popular feminist rallying cry of the 1970s. In 2016 is the personal political enough?
Has political theatre been hijacked by identity politics?

In her wonderful Nobel lecture Svetlana Alexievich said: ‘I am drawn to that small space called a human being … a single individual. In reality, that is where everything happens.’ Is it?
Does a drama dealing with social justice or exclusion need a personal narrative? To use a phrase I dislike: characters we can identify with?
In his notes on The Threepenny Opera Brecht dismissed the view that a playwright must embody everything in the characters and action. Why shouldn’t it also, he asked, be possible to comment from the outside?

Writing is a social practice. How do we resist the evangelising impulse?
Is there a case for rehabilitating the rant? (I suspect there is … )
What use our plays about refugees and asylum-seekers when the people who could change things have no heart to do so? But if we don’t stage these stories are we then perpetuating the culture of silence and invisibility that surrounds Australia’s offshore gulags?

Playwrights take on roles as cultural advocates, form collectives, pioneer different initiatives. Is being a playwright activist the same as being a political playwright?

Do some genres and performance forms lend themselves more readily to political themes?

What of the move towards a theatre of multimedia spectacle—new possibilities for social-engagement? Or an ecology where the eye of the director and the hand of the designer—not to mention the profits of Silicon Valley—push playwrights to the edge.
On the other hand, thanks to technology a show can have an afterlife on YouTube or elsewhere. A plus for accessibility, sure, but perhaps there’s also a downside. In Pinochet’s Chile, performance became an artform of protest because it was ephemeral. It could avoid the censor’s gaze; it could pack up and leave before the military crashed the scene.

Where did it come from, the notion that art and politics don’t mix? Is it something peculiar to the Anglosphere? How does it impact playwrights? Anne Bogart says the past plays out in the present. McCarthyism promoted personal expression over political engagement with the result that plays became all about ‘you, me, our apartment and our problems’. Is that legacy of safe, bankable choices still with us?

What are the responsibilities of playwrights and theatre-makers in a time of deepening inequality and looming environmental tragedy?

‘Theatre is change and not simple presentation of what exists,’ wrote Augusto Boal.
Echoing Nietzsche who said—and I’m paraphrasing—it’s not the job of art to imitate life but rather to create it.
In 2016 how much can theatre achieve? Have we as writers and theatre-makers become too timid, too narrow or domestic in our imagining?
What constitutes political art in the age of the selfie? In the age of big data?
Tony Kushner says: ‘Art is not merely contemplation, it is also action, and all action changes the world, at least a little.’
Robin Hood says he’s not taking from the rich to give to the poor so much as taking back from the rich to return to the poor, who would be doing all right if the rich weren’t so bloody greedy.

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PS My only gripe with Robin Hood myth is the lack of women. Yes, there’s Maid Marian, but I’ve always thought she was there to allay anxieties about what a bunch of merry men in tights might get up to in the woods when they’re not out on the rob.

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