Playing with politics: how the arts can help engage
- Part of Bright Green’s new political engagement series
“The arts are inherently political” is a phrase I heard a few years ago. At first I dismissed it as my understanding of politics was rather narrow, but as the years have rolled by I find myself in agreement with it. So much so that I’d even take it one step further: everything we do as humans is political.
Decisions made in the political sphere affect our daily lives and can form our lived experiences, and vice-versa. This isn’t a new thought but it makes the point that politics isn’t an ethereal place out of our reach. We shape its course and are, in turn, shaped by it.
The arts have had a long history of involvement in the political spheres of various nations. Over our history as a ‘civilised’ species, the arts— paintings, sculptures, novels, performances, and poems— have been used to attack, support, or evolve certain political ideals and stances. The performing arts, specifically, have been utilised in Ancient Greece right up to the current ‘die-ins’ happening around the world to raise awareness of our impact on the environment.
The Ancient Greeks had a rather interesting way of engaging their citizens in political thought. Their performances were made available to every man regardless of whether or not he could afford the entry. These performances were examples of how to live in the Ancient Athenian world, who was in charge, what was expected, and the consequences of failure to adhere. Cleverly, these were woven into metaphorical stories concerning gods and heroes. The audience would walk away (I imagine) from these performances understanding their responsibility to society. I’m sure most have noted that this was a specific ‘male only’ club. Interestingly, so did some of the writers of the time. Euripides’ famous Medea had his ‘multiple-murder’ protagonist fly away at the end of the play to her grandfather the Sun. This was not the usual ending for a character such as Medea (read the play – it’s pretty dark) and it would have floated some pretty controversial ideas about the moral and political functions of Athenian society (the fact she was female and an immigrant didn’t help).
Another example of political engagement through theatre is that of Augusto Boal. Boal is renowned for his works Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), Rainbow of Desire, and Legislative theatre, among others. Boal was inspired by his close friend and colleague, Paulo Freire (read Pedagogy of the Oppressed), and by accident stumbled upon a form of theatre that enacted Freire’s idea that only the oppressed can liberate themselves and their oppressors from the system of dehumanisation. TO is a combination of social action and improvisational theatre that sees a group of performers enter an area to seek out the oppressions they are under. The performers create a short performance in which those oppressions feature and the community attends the showing. After one run through of the piece, the ‘spect-actors’ (spectator actors) can see that the protagonist isn’t challenging or overcoming the oppression; they are not the hero they are supposed to be. In the following run throughs these ‘spect-actors’ can pause the performance at any time and take the role of the protagonist to try and change the outcome of the piece. In this manner the community can address their oppressions in a ‘rehearsal for life’.
That was a (very) brief overview of two types of theatre that sought to engage citizens in the political life of their nation. The first used theatre as a tool to educate the populace on what it was to be a citizen whereas the second used it as a subversive tool to undermine the treatment of those excluded from being a fully participatory citizen. I sometimes think if Boal existed in Ancient Greece with TO he would be working with the slaves, females, and immigrants as they were the ones whose voice was excluded from Ancient Athenian politics. I believe the reason the performing arts can be a powerful tool for political engagement is that it is founded upon the notion of play. That thing we used to do as children, care-free, enjoyable, ecstatic. As we age, ‘play’ can sometimes no longer be something we engage in. But in that liminal space where the ordinary is suspended and the extraordinary is allowed to exist, play once again becomes all consuming. Where Boal’s genius really shines through is that ability to suspend reality but also face it in the same space. Metaxis is where the spect-actors can play with the oppression and discover what could and could not realistically happen. From there it is in the community’s hands whether or not they attempt this new way of facing their political exclusion.
TO is still happening today and, to an extent, so is the Ancient Athenian model – both in evolved forms. The former usually takes place outside of ‘the theatre’ and the latter inside of it. Both engage politically, yet both use drastically different forms for contrasting intentions. The former intentionally challenges the status quo whilst the latter unintentionally reinforces it (side note: Athenian writers like Euripides did challenge the status quo but I am writing of the intention of the style of theatre, not those that subverted it). But both are equally powerful, either actively (TO) or passively. Importantly, TO allows play, the other is (usually) a play.
On this note, it would be interesting to see a ‘pop-up Parliament’ in our towns and cities. What if, in any given place in the UK, there was a temporary House of Commons on the high street or in the market where anyone could come and take a seat and begin to debate. But instead of suits they had to wear animal masks and blow bubbles when they agree with an argument. Or, even, instead of arguing at all, the point of the pop-up Parliamentary session was to agree with your opposition as much as possible? Alternatively, we could simply have a House of Commons replica and ask people to engage in debates on the High Street. But the first two ideas are more fun.
So to tie in with the title of this series: how do we increase political engagement?
We play with it.
If you would be interested in contributing to this article series on political engagement please firstname.lastname@example.org with an article pitch.