Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Are We Artists?

Contributed by Brad Burgess

“They have very prominently placed cultural policy as part of the national agenda…intelligent and insightful debate around issues of culture, the cultural agenda, the possibilities of culture to determine the future of a nation…”
          ~ Professor Peter Eckersall, Graduate Center CUNY
               speaking on Singapore 10/14/2014

Political theatre starts with a fundamental question, “Why are we artists?”

In Singapore, it sounds like almost a sacred duty for this young country to utilize arts to examine, explore and ultimately improve their culture through suggestion of political, spiritual or emotional betterment…

We are artists because on some level we are reacting to reality and saying, “this is not enough.”  We are saying we need more to experience in our daily lives.  We need to create something more, explore deeper, discuss in more detail.

For me, political theatre moves forward from the recognition that this feeling of need is a political reality.


Recently, at Prelude Festival, there was a conversation about honesty. 
Allison Lyman, Artistic Producer MESTC asked “How do you know when a piece is honest?” I responded something like: "I always think of Judith and what she would say as founder of The Living Theatre. For her, every play is about inspiring the audience to a beautiful, peaceful revolution that transforms our communities into better functioning communities that care for the needs of all."

That can mean a lot of things politically, not all as overt as social revolution.

In these times, the word political has been reductively devalued by a two party system, and so now much of “political” theatre has to be directed at this reduced reality, and the issues it has left us with the environment (Extreme Weather by Karen Malpede), with our health , with poverty (That Poor Dream by The Assembly), with our hardness and violent solutions that are not working (Won't Be a Ghost by Francis Weiss Rabkin).

But political theatre is also deeper than two-party issues caused by our current version of a capitalist democracy.  It is really about our political duty to our world as artists responding to the original question, “why are we artists?”


The Assembly’s adaptation of Great Expectations in That Poor Dream, is overtly political about socio-economic class in modern day America and how it’s the same product of our financial system as Victorian England was…

At the same time, the actors break through the 4th wall and communicate stories from their real lives that are intimate, personal, and emotional.

In those moments they are recognizing a political mandate that the actors lives matter in the creation of work.  Similarly, by doing this, they are acknowledging that the individual story of each of the audience members in attendance, also matters.

The politics of this play are that we need to address class reality with each other in order to avoid the pain of the characters, and on a more Artaudian level, the pain of the actors and the the pain of the audience.

But it doesn’t have to be so heavy either.

For instance, David Neumann’s work at Prelude, I Understand Everything Better…all on death…had an inescapable delight, a playfulness and light that was its own political statement about how we can meditate together on death and its pain and react to it.    It was fun as well as meaningful.

Having fun is just as political as feeling pain in answering cultural need and development.


For me, all that and in between is our political theatre.

Political theatre is whatever it means to you as a person that answers the cultural need for artistic creation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think more people should come right out with direct action and political critique to encourage a more politically engaged society and work with as many organizations to do so as possible.

“Art is certainly for art’s sake,” she said. “But I also fervently believe in art for life’s sake.”         
                       ~ Deborah Rutter, President, Kennedy Center (Washington Post)

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