Written as part of the What now?collection at Minnesota PlaylistJune 3, 2021 by Robin Jolhnson
Augusto Boal maintained that the only truly democratic theater to exist was the open-air festivals that preceded the Greek amphitheaters. The stories and music of these festivals were spontaneously created and everyone was welcome to participate or not as they chose. The line between participant and audience was blurred and stories were impulsively changed to reflect multiple voices.
However, the first moment someone was "assigned" the role of playwright or actor became the first moment someone else was denied that particular opportunity. And we now have thousands of years to look back and reflect on who society tends to deem "worthy" of telling or interpreting or attending stories and who isn't.
For the most part, male members of powerful races and religions have taken control of the narratives and dominated the perspectives seen on stage and on screen. Western theater (and certainly movie-going) does not lend itself to easy, instant rebuttal. When seeing a play even today, it is an unwritten expectation that you remain passively in your seat and quiet so as to show respect. And this is demanded of you even if what is being said onstage is a falsehood or causes offence. In this way, Boal maintained, the line between Western entertainment and oppression becomes quite thin. It also quietly turns away those who routinely can't relate to what is being shown.
Electronic/televised entertainment has added additional layers of prerogative. While we seem to be making progress in some areas, there are still many aspects of our humanness (age, physical attractiveness, disability, and even economic status) that are routinely unrepresented or misrepresented in the stories we tell and share.
There are far more causal factors to who gets chosen to tell humanity's stories and who gets to hear them than I have space for here. But I feel we need to take a look again at how the commodification of theater contributes to the hierarchy of theater participation and attendance as well as how the processes of commodification can fail theater's sustainability in times of crisis.
We live in a society where the stories we tell and the storytellers who tell them are closely tied to the money they can generate. "Who is worthy" to participate is heavily influenced by how much money they can bring in. Who can attend is frequently determined by who can afford the ticket price or travel to the venue. Has everyone been invited to participate at the open-air festival? Not really. Because the festivals seem to be run by Broadway and Netflix.
Could theater be turned back into something else? I ask this with a surprising amount of optimism because I have lived in a place and at a time when there was far more robust community participation in and attendance of local theater. In addition, it lived harmoniously alongside larger scale professional entities.
They say the Depression gave rise to the regional theater movement. I hope this time we can dive even more deeply into our own communities and stop thinking that the only stories worth hearing are those told by a bloated and inefficient system of commodification.
Think globally and *act* locally!