The Artist as Activist–Take It to the Street or the Stage?

On Jan. 26, after a month of planning that was kicked off by Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, the March on Washington for Gun Control took place—the first major public demonstration since the Sandy Hook shootings to demand a change in our national gun policy. I was in the thick of it, having helped (in a very small way) to assist the organizers and turning out to march and rally—one of more than 6,000 people who showed up that morning.



It was a first for me, to be in the midst of a movement, rather than at the edge of it, observing it.  Up to this point in my life, the most I’ve ever done for any cause I’ve supported is to write a check. And while money helps, muscle is sometimes more important.  So when Molly issued a call, I decided that it was time to do more than just lament a sorry situation. So I turned out to offer my limited skills at research and writing, helping collect as much information as I could on the issue and, with the help of my friend Cat,  searching out  the names of gun violence victims whose names were carried in silent protest down Constitution Avenue.



A view from within the crowd.


Later that afternoon, there was a demonstration of another kind at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre—where Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich, artistic director of NoPassport theatre alliance and press, had organized a Theatre Action for Gun Control in collaboration with Theatre J and interdisciplinary arts ensemble force/collision and Twinbiz.  The presentation of short works included new pieces by Neil LaBute, Jennifer Maisel, Winter Miller, Matthew Paul Olmos, Svich, and others.




This juxtaposition of street theatre—which this march and rally surely was—and a theatre of protest in a traditional setting invites the question of what role art can play in responding to atrocity. The slaughter of those poor children and their teachers in Connecticut was so awful that any response at all seemed stunningly ineffectual. What can you say in response to such madness? And who is more crazy– the gunman who took the lives of people totally unconnected to his personal hell–or the rest of us, who allow these conditions to persist and go so far as to argue–some of us–that our constitutional right to firearms trumps any reasonable effort to curtail their unlimited availability to individuals unfit to use them.


Are there moments when art has nothing to say? Or is it just that I have nothing to say; and for that reason decided to take up an action at Molly’s invitation and do what little I could to make the point. Are there times when the only reasonable response is to put down the pen, take off the costume, and take to the street? These are the questions I put to Caridad and her response is below the fold.





1. How do you as an artist respond to an event like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary? Obviously you believe that art/theatre has something to say that is worthwhile–but my question is what? What can we possibly say or do that will make any difference to anyone in a culture so saturated with violence, so in love with the gun?




I am still a believer in the “every grain of sand” approach–that is, while a play or poem in and of itself may not effect immediate change, the effort to speak out and up, to raise the voice with power and feeling and artistry and passion, does matter. Otherwise, why are we artists? We make things, we throw light on our culture and its troubles because we do think it matters to someone somewhere down the pike, or we wouldn’t even be in this art-making life to begin with. In the case of this specific theatre action for gun control it felt urgent and necessary to speak out with art in the moment and to this moment. After the Newtown massacre, I, too, personally as a citizen and artist, felt quite the same as you describe in your preface to these questions: helpless in the face of, hopeless, angry, etc. How can one not feel these things? But to not respond in some way either was equally troubling to me personally. I thought we must find a way to galvanize somehow as a country, as citizens, in any way we can to help make this a better, more just society. After the Columbine massacre, the issue of gun control was raised and all these years later, it still hangs in the balance. How many innocents need be killed before we try to effect some measure of change? The March that Molly Smith and Suzanne Blue Star Boy have organized is a visible sign, and because theatre work offers a space and place for reflection and gathering, I thought a theatre action could also be another sign to keep the voices raised, and not this “issue” fall by the wayside in our national debate yet again.




2. We hear a lot of talk about “the cultural conversation” and how theatre needs to be part of it or drive it. But how do you address the fact that anyone who turns out for an evening of short works on gun control is already predisposed to be receptive to the idea of gun control? How do you reach the audience that would reject the notion out of hand? How do you see an evening of short plays having any impact at all—or is it really about allowing the artists to believe that they have done their “bit” by sounding off?




Theatre is its own church and yes, the people who come may indeed be already part of the choir, as it were. Lobbyists know too who their “choirs” are and preach to them. If you study the history of art and efficacy–especially guerrilla theatre, street theatre, and other forms of creative activism–there are many ways to go about trying to be part of the conversation and the wave of making a difference. I do not pretend that an evening of short works, again, will effect immediate change. Given the nature of the pieces, which reflect a range of responses–from prayers to meditations to calls for action–I think the writers selected in the curated evening offer plenty for an audience to consider about how gun violence has played a part in our lives. The artists who have come forth quite generously and have written pieces specifically for this event and are taking part as performers and organizers of this event are doing so because they believe in the power of community. Pure and simple. And especially in the power of being able to sit with tragedy in a space and reflect upon it and live with it (as we all do). One event does not heal these kinds of cultural wounds. But the space to reflect is crucial. I very much believe in the difference between making art that is targeted to change legislation, and the kind of work that is made to go beyond that. The March is, to my mind, very much in the spirit of calling on Washington to say “change in our gun laws must occur.” It is a sign. Like holding up a placard. Like tagging a billboard. It is street action. But there is art-making too that can believe in the need for legislative change that is not made only with that kind of ambition–that instead, wishes to offer a related, empathetic space of intervention. The theatre action, and a simultaneous one occurring with NoPassport in collaboration with One Pittsburgh, CeaseFirePA and Pittsburgh PACT, is free, and the artists who have taken part are not simply, as I have been in dialogue with them, behaving as if they are clicking a link or checking off a dutiful action on their checklist. We make theatre because we do think it matters, in its small, humble way. If the theatre action is staged in different cities after January 26,  perhaps we will discover different ways to wear both hats–the art for immediate efficacy hat, and the art for longstanding cultural soul-work and reparation hat–simultaneously. One step at a time.




3. What role do you believe the arts have played in contributing to a culture of violence? The NRA blames video games and Hollywood films–without mentioning what the gun industry has paid for product placement–but is there any truth to the charge? What soul searching must we as storytellers do, when “conflict” is the essential element of drama? Has violence become an easy out for lazy storytellers–and if so, what is the answer?




When I teach playwriting and creative writing, the representation of violence onstage and in prose, film and other narrative and non-narrative art genres is, by nature, a necessary point of discussion, as much as it is when I make work and/or view/witness work made by others. What is the artist’s obligation and/or moral duty when representing violence? A thorny, complicated question that has riddled authors and theorists for centuries, from the ancient Greek dramatists on down. Is “conflict” hardwired in our storytelling because as human beings we are “hardwired” for it? Is the representation of violence a necessary condition, then, of storytelling? The storytelling adage goes: If you pull out a gun in a play, then at some point you are going to have to use it. But what if you don’t? And what if a gun never appears on stage? is there an easy answer here? Do we say “place all violence offstage, and let the messenger tell us what happened?” Or do we let Gloucester gets his eyes blinded right in front of us? What does the “showing” of violence mean for the audience who receives it?




In theatre, I think, the representation of violence, when used with judgment and clarity and sophistication by an artist, can be a necessary tool for storytelling – and here I include emotional, psychological as well as physical violence. Can you imagine The Bacchae, for example, without the raging bacchants? Theatre is a visceral medium. It is, in part, about awakening the senses. In theatre, in live performance, violence as signifier carries a different change than in the plastic mediums like film. One blow from one character to another in theatre can send a charge through an audience – that is not titillating but rather calling into question moral actions.




In film and video, because of the very nature of the medium, its plasticity, I would argue, the “ease” of violence and its mechanics – blowing up cities, shoot-outs, etc. – becomes often mere “choreography.” It can encourage desensitization in an audience member. How many characters does one see get killed every week on TV and film, for instance? The same desensitization can apply to how audiences watch graphic news events on TV and online. The “wars” that are “over there” become “theoretical” and the killed “mere” collateral damage.




Theatre’s job, in part, in its role as part of civic engagement, is to remind the audience , should it choose to do so within the telling of a chosen story, that, in effect, it is not something toward which one should be (desensitized). Are there lazy storytellers that resort to the use of violence? Yes. But there always have been. Are multinationally-financed Hollywood films and videogames to blame? I don’t believe in censorship, but I do believe in, again, the artist’s moral responsibility. You have a choice when you make something in a free society. You choose which stories you wish to tell and why and how.




In many cases, shall we say, in the case of B and C Hollywood filmmaking, we are talking about product-makers and merchants. So, how do you begin to have a dialogue with people who feel that all they are doing is making product to fulfill a market need? Do you ask the product-maker to consider their moral action or the lure of the $? I think fundamentally this is the question quite often. Are you willing as a product-maker to not make the $ in order to help change the kind of content (and perhaps then affect the level of desensitization) viewed by the potential buyer? Are you willing to stop business as usual?  


I will ruminate on that question in another post—but that, as she observes, really is the fundamental issue here. Where do we draw the line in what we are willing to do for money? The gun lobby has decided that its profits trump public safety and all common sense and it has poured millions into a public propaganda campaign to convince Americans that their fundamental right to self defense and self determination is threatened by people who think that  sub-machine guns really have no place in civilized society.


What ought to be a no-brainer is looking increasingly like a very tough sell on Capitol Hill.


So perhaps the question is not so much what to say, but how to say it in a way that can capture the attention of people otherwise disposed to ignore you. That’s a question playwrights struggle with as a matter of course—but when it comes to the rot at the core of the American psyche, it is an even greater challenge. For I sense that one reason this debate is in the spin cycle is that the problem, fundamentally, is not guns.


It is self-delusion.