Monday, August 13, 2012

Theater for Social Change

Contributed by Gabrielle Nieporent

As a current college student studying theater, Stage Management to be specific, I know it would be close to impossible to predict where my life will go once I graduate from school. Sure, I make tons of plans and set goals for myself, but I think it would be unrealistic for me to say I know exactly what I’ll be doing two years from now.  But there is one thing I can say with certainty: I will be making theater. No matter what it takes, I know that theater will always be a part of my life.

Why theater? I often get asked. I do theater because it is living, ever changing, and has the power to reach people in a way nothing else can. By being so immediate, theater taps deeply into human empathy. This power allows theater to be an impetus for change.

I was fortunate enough to experience theater as an outlet for social change last summer. I was interning for Karen Armstrong, the Production Stage Manager of The Normal Heart while the law to legalize same-sex marriage was being put to a vote. The Normal Heart was written by Larry Kramer in 1985 chronicling the early years of the AIDS epidemic, specifically the delayed support of the government due to the demographic [gay men] the disease was targeting. (I highly suggest you read it if you never have). At the end of the play, a mock deathbed wedding takes place between the two lovers. As I watched this play every night for two months I couldn’t help but think ‘yes, we have come so far, and yet we still have so much farther to go,’ in terms of equal rights for the LGBTQ community. And that is why the revival of the play was so necessary at that specific moment in time. The play pulls you in and takes you on a full cathartic journey, making you feel anger, sadness, frustration, and even humor all in one night. It is impossible to see this play and not be moved. The night same-sex marriage was legalized in New York is one I will never forget.

I was sitting in the green room with some of the understudies, refreshing our phones as many times as we could, searching for the conclusion of the vote. As the play ran on the TV monitor. It was the second the actors stepped on stage to do their curtain call that the vote was passed. Those of us in the green room jumped up in celebration and proceeded to run down onto the deck of the stage to tell the crew as well as the actors as they filed off stage. It was a moment of triumph—a moment that made us believe change for the better was coming, and that our show playing at that time was not just some coincidence. After hearing the news, our actors proceeded to walk back on stage and notify the audience for the first time of this historic moment. That mock wedding that took place at a deathbed could now become a reality in the state of New York. Re-experiencing the past struggles and devastation of the gay community through this play made this moment that much more triumphant. Everyone in the theater that night experienced history being made. It was a thrill to be there. We couldn’t help but feel that this play and this vote happened at the same time for a reason; that somehow the education and experience we had provided really did make a difference. If a theater production can change at least one audience member’s perspective in some way, then it can lead to change. Change comes from the individual. From people becoming educated and seeing something in a way they hadn’t before, and then acting differently because of it. Due to its empathetic nature, theater is an incredible way to accomplish this. We create social change by altering one perspective at a time, and by enabling people to see a situation in a new way by appealing to their desire to be entertained and their ability to feel.

I will remember that moment in that theater for the rest of my life. It reaffirms why I do theater. What I already believed—that theater has the power to facilitate social change.


Gabrielle Nieporent is a current Theater and Sociology double major at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Her main area of interest is Stage Management. Last summer she was the Stage Management Intern for The Normal Heart and The Addams Family National Tour. Past college credits include: Self-Fictionalize (stage manager), The Intruder (stage manager), Dog Sees God (assistant stage manager), Romeo and Juliet (assistant stage manager), and The Servant of Two Masters (assistant stage manager). She is the Co-General Manager of the Skidmore Theater Department. This summer she was the company management intern for the Innovative Theatre Foundation.

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