Back in October, a bunch of us got together to discuss what we as members of the theater community might do in response to the threat of war on Iraq and to the attack on civil liberties at home, how we might stop feeling isolated, discouraged, and afraid. It occurred to us that the most truthful and direct response was to use what we already do: lots & lots of different kinds of theater.
Over the past several months since Bush and company began their headlong rush towards war, it has been hard not to be deeply frustrated by the lack of a well-organized, coherent vehicle of protest. Petitions have been passed and rallies held, but the mainstream media have largely ignored these shows of solidarity. In addition, the Democrats’ rollover, combined with the usual sectarian squabbling on the left, have caused a vast number of Americans to feel isolated and powerless. In response, new organizations and new methods of organizing are developing to breach the gap, and THAW— THeaters Against War— is one of them.
THAW, which launched itself to a packed house at P.S.122 on Monday December 9th, is a new coalition of theater artists founded on the idea that theater is a natural vehicle for a communal, non-partisan response against the war in Iraq and the attacks on civil liberties here at home. THAW’s goal is to galvanize the theater community in a single day of citywide anti-war protest, slated for Sunday, March 2, 2003.
The theater community’s desire for a means to respond to the impending war was palpable at the December town hall meeting, which was called to bring theaters and theater artists together to begin sharing resources and ideas towards making the event happen. The second floor theater was filled to capacity with people representing major Off-Broadway houses to the scrappiest of fringe groups; those who couldn’t find a seat sat on the edge of the risers, or stood against the wall.
Award-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant (Wit, Angels in America) began the evening with a reading of Harold Pinter’s recent address at University of Turin, Italy— a searing condemnation of the American march to war. Ms. Chalfant then proceeded to deftly turn Pinter’s indictment into an eloquent call for action:
I think we must take [Pinter’s statement] as a rallying cry. We must show Mr. Pinter and the rest of the world that we are not helpless, that he has underestimated us. We in this room are only a few of the millions of people in this country who believe that our government is proposing to implicate us all in an act of murderous folly.
For the moment the administration has control of the story so it is hard to make opposition voices heard and to have them believed. We in the theatre are uniquely equipped to tell another story, to change the narrative. It is what we do, and if we do it fiercely and well we will be heard because there are millions of people waiting to hear it.
Miles Solay, a 21-year-old peace activist from the Not In Our Name Project, spoke next, after which two THAW organizers, the actresses Juliana Francis and Okwui Okpokwasili, introduced THAW. The primary purpose of the meeting was not to discuss anti-war sentiments— this, after all, is the one point drawing everyone "to the table"— but to devise a strategy to make this unified voice of dissent heard. Towards this end, the majority of the evening was spent in a group discussion, open to all attendees, moderated by actor Steven Rattazzi.
It quickly became clear that the widely disparate aesthetic, financial and political concerns that (wonderfully) make up New York theater could also easily pull the community apart in its quest to discover the "best" way to voice a singular anti-war message. The following discussion, which graced the floor of the THAW open forum, provides a glimpse of possible struggles that could emerge:
Participant 1: It’s gotta be fun; otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, I’m turned off and I’m not listening.
Participant 2: I don’t want people to be entertained. People should leave the theater feeling awful about themselves, so that they’ll be inspired to DO something.
Brechtophiles and the greater avant-garde have been dancing around such debates for years. It is well-lamented that political theater is in itself a particularly unwieldy, hazardously "un-fun," and often unsuccessful form. The swiftly changing nature of political events make it difficult for a writer or theater collaborative to respond with a deeply considered, and thus successful, theater.
The organizers of THAW have thus opted to make political action, rather than political content, the focus of the event. They state that the aim of the March 2nd event is to set aside one day on which the act of making or attending theater will be political in both a symbolic and a practical sense. Participating theaters can donate ticket sales to the Not In Our Name Project, host teach-ins, or express support by featuring the THAW logo in their programs, distibuting literature, or including a curtain speech dedicating a performance to the movement. Some theaters will develop programs and street actions specifically in response to the night; others will piggyback protests onto shows already scheduled.
"Each theater should pursue what it’s interested in," explained playwright and THAW organizer Anne de Mare. "The shows themselves don’t have to be political— what’s political should be the fact that we’re all coming together around one message, not necessarily the content of what is produced."
In response to concerns over the limits imposed on political activity by the 501©(3) non-profit status most theaters operate under, moderator Rattazzi confirmed that THAW is in discussion with lawyers. "And everything we’ve suggested," he said to the accompaniment of nervous giggles, "is legal."
"THAW is an opportunity to participate in the anti-war movement by doing what we do," said Boo Froebel, Artistic Director of Williamsburg’s Galapagos Art Space, who was in attendance. "It is by no means the only way for artists, spaces, and companies to participate and agitate. It is one way and, while individual voices are often overpowered by the white noise in the world, THAW gives us the opportunity to raise our voices together, louder and fiercer than before."
THAW encourages other performing and visual arts spaces, groups and individual artists to participate in the March 2nd action and thereby extend this anti-war protest across the arts. One’s involvement could be as simple as displaying the THAW logo on a program, at an art opening, or by wearing a THAW T-shirt on that day. Consider it protest branding. The group is also looking to pool resources of time, photocopying privileges and ideas. Visual artists are particularly welcome, to create
T-shirt designs and other visual material to help promote and carry out the March 2nd action.
For more information on THAW, details on their next meeting on January 20th, or how you can get involved, see THAW’s website www.thawaction.org or email [email protected]