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Humanities Libertexts

1.5: The Uses of Theatre

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  • We certainly look to theatre for entertainment, but many believe that using it as a source of pleasure or escape is not its only purpose. A series of practices called drama therapy is described by its national association as when “participants are invited to rehearse desired behaviors, practice being in relationships, expand and find flexibility between life roles, and perform the change they wish to be and see in the world.” It is a mix of theatre and clinical and psychological practice, and master’s degrees in drama therapy are now offered nationally and internationally to train specialists to work with special populations such as troubled children and adolescents, the elderly, substance abusers, people with developmental disabilities, and those who have experienced traumatic events such as wars or natural disasters. Drama therapists might also work with dysfunctional families or individuals seeking help with life problems. One example is called playback theatre, in which an audience member tells a story about his life and then a troupe of actors recreates it through artistic improvisation. This allows the storyteller to actively and immediately reflect upon an event—choices and dynamics can be reexamined and insights can be gained. At the same time, audiences can find parallels in their own lives. Role play can even be valuable for the clinicians themselves. Today, prominent hospitals and medical schools commonly hire actors to portray the sick to help aspiring doctors learn to relate to patients. Encounters are recorded and reviewed by supervisors in order to improve students’ bedside manner. Although it can be argued that all plays teach by presenting an outlook that can be accepted or rejected by the spectator, numerous groups have sought to use theatre to educate throughout history. In the Christian world, for example, theatre was widely used to provide a moral education. During the Middle Ages in Europe, most people were illiterate and could not speak Latin, the language of the Bible and the Christian service. To share biblical stories and teach Catholic doctrine, priests oversaw the creation of plays that were performed by amateurs belonging to the local community. At first, plays were presented inside the church, but they were later moved outside to temporary stages. Each of these stages, called mansions, represented a specific location such as heaven or hell with an open space called a platea used for the playing space. The audience would then follow the action from set to set. It was not uncommon for these shows to have elaborate special effects such as flying machines to raise and lower actors (Jesus’ ascension and flying demons), smoke and fire, and mirrored lighting to simulate a halo. Today, churches continue to use theatre for instruction. Many use skits, with varying degrees of sophistication, to illustrate points made in sermons, and Easter plays continue to dramatize the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Other religious uses of theatre can be quite controversial. Since the 1990s, many evangelical Christian churches have presented Hell House, a yearly alternative to the traditional Halloween haunted house. Performed by teenagers and targeted to their age group, it follows the same structure and spirit as a medieval theatrical presentation. An actor playing the devil or the devil’s helper shepherds the audience from one graphic and disturbing scene to the next in an effort to frighten the audience away from behaviors it considers sinful. After depictions of gay lifestyles, drugs, suicide, occultism, drunk driving, or domestic violence, characters involved are dragged away by demons to eternal damnation. At the end of the tour, the crowd moves to some representation of heaven, then is invited to pray and possibly join the congregation. Secular forces have also made full use of the theatre’s persuasive possibilities. Public opinion has been swayed by plays designed to inform the public about important social issues. In the 1840s and 1850s, alcohol consumption was considered an enormous threat to the American family, so much so that a temperance movement was established in order to preach abstinence and pressure the government to restrict and/or abolish its use. One of their strongest weapons was a play called The Drunkard written by a former alcoholic actor with help from a Unitarian minister.

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    During the medieval period, the Bible was available only in Latin and could not be understood by an illiterate public. To address this problem, the Catholic church used theatre to illustrate stories such as the Creation, Cain and Abel, and the Last Supper. Performed by amateur actors from the community, these plays were funded outside the church and often had elaborate sets and special effects. This print recreates one type of performance called a passion play, which depicted the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. It was presented in Valenciennes, France, in 1547; took twenty-five days to perform; and had one hundred roles for seventy-two actors. On the left, you can see a depiction of paradise with God on his throne surrounded by angels and saints. On the right, Satan and his devils control the entrance to hell or “hell-mouth.” Fire and smoke effects were designed to strike fear into the hearts of any audience members that dared to sin. (Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

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    A 2013 passion play presented on Good Friday in Trafalgar Square, London. (Photo by Elena Dante.)

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    Images from a 2008 Hell House created by an evangelical church in Cedar Hill, Texas. A “demon guide” ushers the audience to disturbing scenes such as this simulated school shooting. The Hell House phenomenon began in 1995 with a church in Arvada, Colorado, that went on to sell kits to other churches. Approximately three thousand Hell Houses are presented each year. Some churches have drawn sharp criticism for their controversial interpretations of immoral behavior. Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attack, a Waco, Texas, Hell House contained a scene in which a woman’s abortion was followed by her announcement that she was to accept a new job at the Twin Towers. (Photos by Marcus Junius Laws.)

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    It portrays a good-natured landowner who is destroyed by liquor and abandons his wife and child only to be saved from a life of shame by a wealthy philanthropist. It became one of the most successful plays in American history and was one of more than one hundred plays dedicated to showing the evils of drink. Equally influential were the many dramatizations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, already one of the most popular books of the nineteenth century. Audiences throughout the country could watch the story of runaway slaves Eliza and George and their escape from cruel masters and slave traders along with the travails of Uncle Tom, a faithful slave rewarded only with misery. Because of a lack of copyright laws, some adaptations had a pro-slavery bent, but most questioned the immorality of the institution and humanized its sufferers. Today, plays like The Drunkard might be called engaged theatre, drama that aspires to promote dialogue and social justice through performance. It can take many forms: community-based theatre, theatre in education, health education, theatre for development, prison theatre, museum and memory theatre, and theatre for social change. Engaged theatre also answers to many names: applied theatre, civically/socially/ politically engaged theatre, ethnodrama, and documentary theatre, to name several. As currently practiced, it can trace its emergence to the early 1990s intersection of anthropological research into theatre and community-based performance. However, if we consider its ethos of democratic participation, we find that its origins are the same as Western theatre itself. Athenian theatre of the fifth century BCE relied on an engaged citizenry for its development.

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    In addition to tragedies, playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote comedies for a demanding democratic public who judged the relevance and relative merits of their work by how it engaged the current political debate. The archetypal characters created on stage stood in for competing philosophies, and major political figures could be criticized for their excesses.

    Documentary or Verbatim Theatre

    Some performers have sought to represent not only characters, but pivotal events as well. They do it by constructing plays using material directly from firsthand interviews as well as historical or contemporary documents. Unlike so-called reality television, which often asks us to negatively judge its subjects, these “verbatim plays” ask us to empathize and see multiple sides of a single issue. The following are some contemporary examples. Actor Anna Deavere Smith’s work began in the 1970s when she traveled the country, interviewing interesting people with a tape recorder and then transforming this material into a series of monologues in which she would play all of the parts. Her most famous plays are about race relations that have erupted into riots. Fires in the Mirror takes you to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. Tensions turned into violence in this African American and orthodox Jewish neighborhood after two shocking events: a black child was killed by a car transporting a rabbi, and a Hasidic man was stabbed by a group of black men. By portraying real people from both communities who experienced the riot, she brought both perspectives into sharp focus. Later, she performed Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a piece she created after the violence following the acquittal of several white police officers who had been videotaped repeatedly beating Rodney King, a black man pulled over for drunk driving. The Laramie Project (2000) was devised by members of the Tectonic Theater Project. They sought to understand the rural community of Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard, a gay twenty one-year-old university student, was savagely assaulted and left to die by two local men. They spent fifteen months in the city conducting interviews with its inhabitants. Some were connected to Matthew Shepard and the events surrounding the murder, and others were simply dealing with its aftermath and what it meant to be a resident of Laramie. The result was a play with seventy-two characters played by eight actors. The Laramie Project has been produced worldwide and generated so much interest that a companion epilogue, created from follow-up interviews, was added ten years after Shepard’s death. The following two shows have dealt with the inequities of our criminal justice system.

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    A high school production of The Laramie Project. In this scene, members of Westboro Baptist Church protest the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, 2008. Photo by Anthony Chivetta.

    The Exonerated (2002), by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, was constructed from interviews with six death row inmates who were freed when new evidence proved their innocence. Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass (2004) was developed by actor Ashley Lucas by interviewing prisoners in California, Texas, and New York; their families; and people connected to the prison system. She also added material from her own childhood dealing with an incarcerated father to help audiences gain perspective into prison life and its effect on families. A perennial favorite in the theatre community is The Vagina Monologues (1996). Eve Ensler conducted interviews with two hundred women about a body part that she thought deserved celebration rather than shame or embarrassment and created an entire evening dedicated to it. Now performed on countless college campuses, this series of monologues is usually presented by a group of women instead of a single performer and has been used as a fund-raiser for charities that deal with violence against women. Do these plays have a point of view, or does the fact that they are made out of the words of real people prove their objectivity? Keep in mind that although they are made from primary sources, they are still forms of artistic expression. Out of the sum total of material collected, points of view are chosen, others go unused, and the texts are arranged for some kind of overall effect. Regardless, they have the potential to create powerful theatre and are an indelible link to historical moments from which we can learn and initiate change. In the words of Anna Deavere Smith, “I think when things fall apart— you can see more and you can even—be a part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.”

    While we can see the embrace of democratic ideals of participation since the inception of Western theatre, more recent developments in engaged theatre have sought to extend these ideals to their logical conclusions—why not involve the community as creators of theatre instead of solely as observers? To subvert the notion of theatregoers as consumers, this kind of theatre empowers community members to produce their own art—a passive audience is not the goal. Even in work that does not have explicit audience/community participation in the creation or performance, the content will be relevant to the audience as it speaks to community social realities. So what does engaged theatre look like?

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