NEW BOOK AND ONLINE SUMMER SEMINAR by Dan Friedman
Theatre artists, including many of us doing progressive “theatre for social change,” “political theatre” “social theatre” (there are lots of labels, none up to the task) have usually understood our work as putting on shows for audiences. We work on the assumption that providing the “right” message and/or the “right” emotional experience will help audience members understand the world more accurately and/or inspire them to change it.
At the same time, there are artists and activists in both the Global South and the Global North who feel acutely the limitations of this one-way (stage-to-audience) approach to theatre as a catalyst for change. They have come to believe that performance is more than acting on stage (or screen); indeed, many see performance itself as a viable route to the transformative social and cultural development our world so desperately needs. This nascent movement works, for the most part, to take performance outside the institutional constraints of the theatre and invites all kinds of people to create performance ensembles.
While play and performance have been around as long as our species (probably longer), consciously approaching play and performance as ways of breaking out of constricted social roles, fossilized ideas and crippling emotions is new. This approach, which many of its practitioners are calling “performance activism,” has let loose performance in the classroom, the workplace, the community centre the hospital, the prison, the village square, the railroad platform, the political rally. In the process, performance is emerging as a means of engaging education, politics, and psychology. It’s bringing performance into activities such as building bridges between antagonistic social groups, creating community dialogue, healing and reigniting creativity and curiosity in those who have had it beaten or starved or bombed out of them. It’s an approach to social change that forefronts play and performance, not cognition and knowing. It leaves the old ideologies, indeed, ideology itself, behind and embraces performance as a way of discovering ways to move forward.
Performance Activism is emerging not from pre-formulated ideas but through collective activity. Some of this activity has, of course, been initiated by those of us for whom performance was already central to our lives: theatre artists, dancers and musicians—including ImaginAction leaders and activists. However, we theatre folks are not the whole story. Much of performance activism has also been initiated and led by therapists, by medical doctors, psychologists and social workers; some by teachers and by people who work with young people outside of school; some by community organizers and political activists; some are industrial workers; some are rural peasants; some are students, some are prisoners and some are refugees; some come with academic training, many with no formal education at all. This diversity of sources and experiences is part of what makes it so impactful. It is not constrained by the old ways of doing theatre or the old ways of doing politics.
I’m proud to let you know that I have written the first book-length study of this movement, Performance Activism: Precursors and Contemporary Pioneers, which has recently been published by Palgrave and excited to invite you to participate in a summer seminar where we will read and discuss excerpts from the book. Performance Activism traces how, over the course of the 20th Century, performance was loosened from the theatre and provides an overview of contemporary performance activism around the world from the rural villages of Zimbabwe and Colombia to the urban streets of New York and New Delhi.
The online, Zoom-enabled seminar, “The Performance of Politics and the Politics of Performance,” is being offered by the East Side Institute (ESI), an international research and learning center for social therapeutics and performance activism. Each week we will read a short excerpt from the book (no more than 20 pages) which will be sent to you by the ESI and each Sunday between July 10 and August 14 we will meet online to discuss the reading. If you are a performance activist (even if you’ve never used that term before) or if this new approach to activism reverberates with you, I’d love to have you as part of the conversation. For more on the seminar and to register, you can click here.
- Dan Friedman has been active in progressive political and community-based theatre for
half a century. He is the Artistic Director Emeritus of the Castillo Theatre in New York
City, a lead organizer of Performing the World and on the faculty of the East Side