The Power of Political Theater
As an artist, I’ve always believed the creating and the producing of political theater to be an act of leadership. Political artists take risks, tell stories people aren’t always ready to hear, and hold up a mirror to reflect the realities – both good and bad—of our society. Artists decide what stories get created, seen, and heard by the public. They are actively shaping the culture around us, as theater raises the antenna of people’s social and political consciousness.
“Theatre remains any society’s sharpest way to hold a live debate with itself,” writes renowned English director Peter Hall in his book The Necessary Theatre. “If it doesn’t challenge, provoke or illuminate, it is not fulfilling its function.”
The most rewarding piece of theater is one that stimulates thought, opens dialogue, and leaves people talking about the play for hours, days, even years later. Revered playwrights – Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller – all wrote political plays that jarred audiences. Political work will continue to be found on the stage because the theater is an ideal place for compelling stories about the complexities of the world in which we live.
Unlike film or television where it is too easy to hit the mute button, theater requires the audience to come face to face with its characters. Theater shows the depths of these characters, their circumstances, and what motivates them to take specific actions. I never understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until I saw the plays Golda’s Balcony and My Name Is Rachel Corrie. My history books just presented factual events and outcomes. These two plays showed the human elements driving this conflict and why tensions exist.
A fine, current example of political theater is Andrea Lepcio’s tragedy One Nation Under. The play reveals issues of class, power, and ethics. One Nation Under tells the story of Arlene Stanton, a Circuit Court of Appeals Judge on the short list for the Supreme Court nomination. Personal, professional, and political conflicts arise when Stanton’s 25-old son willingly chooses a job with Halliburton in Iraq. The play explores how those who are privileged and those who are impoverished are introduced to war, and how they escape the brutalities of war differently. The play is well-researched, funny at times, and shows both conservative and liberal viewpoints. Audiences leave the theater thinking about poverty, personal responsibility, moral challenges, and who is served or not served by our legal system.
Despite the insight political theater offers, there’s a misperception that this type of theater is inherently bad. As a producer of political poetry shows, I’ve encountered this notion several times. People ask, “How do you keep the work from being didactic?” My reply is always the same: “Lead with the story.”
A story that highlights a common human experience is the most important element to engaging an audience. And this is why One Nation Under is a successful political tragedy. During the writing process, Lepcio focused not on the delivery of a message, but on the journey of her main character. Lepcio wrote five drafts of One Nation Under, revisiting the work of Shakespeare and Aristotle’s Poetics to guide the arc of the play. “If I structured a heroic character that fell, I felt that people could relate to that as a human story,” she says. Lepcio’s approach was a smart one. A well-structured story, not party line preaching, is the mark of good political theater.
Narratives, both fictional and factual, are effective in conveying political information and drawing in audiences. Narratives are used in political speeches and campaign advertisements because they work. Both psychologist Drew Westen and linguist George Lakoff point to the power of narratives in their books The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation and Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, respectively. Westen identifies the ten essential components to creating a successful political story – a list that includes the basics for any playwright; the structure should be easy to understand, there should be a protagonist and antagonist, and it should be emotionally memorable. Similarly, Lakoff writes, “…narratives give arguments a trajectory that both compels an audience and guides their understanding of the issue itself.”
While politicians use factual narratives to invoke emotion and accentuate their points, playwrights use inventive stories to push audiences outside their comfort zones. Howard Zinn, the well-known historian and activist, states that artists who write fictional works have a greater flexibility when it comes to creating content that challenges the status quo. “[Artists] can point to things that take you outside traditional thinking because you can get away with it in fiction,” writes Zinn in Artists in Times of War. In general, people will find a play that questions mainstream thought less threatening than a non-fiction article on the same topic.
Politics is so much a part of the way we experience our lives—from the communities we live in to the food we eat, to the way we are educated, and to the resources we do or don’t have access to. It only makes sense that the stories onstage reflect these realities. Political artists, like Lepcio, are choosing to create and present stories that ask tough questions about the world around us. By doing so, they are serving their communities.
There is a boldness, fearlessness, and purposefulness about political theater that I greatly respect. The political artists I know are keenly aware of their role in society and are genuinely interested in using art to promote thinking and stimulate dialogue. Political artists embrace the opportunity to use their voice to call attention to the social and political problems of our times. They embody talent, optimism, and a sense of personal responsibility that is admirable. Lepcio sounds like the other political artists I know when she passionately says, “[The world] is not happening to us. I firmly believe we make the world.”
One Nation Under, produced by Three Chicks Theatre, is in production at Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th St. and runs through September 13th. For more info, please visit www.threechickstheatre.org.
Tara Bracco is a performance artist and the founder of Poetic People Power.