Political theatre and performance art have been around for centuries and have the profound ability to affect audiences’ political attitudes and opinions on social issues. In this paper, the effects of political theatre on the social issue of voter apathy are explored. Historical connections are examined, and associations are made between popular media communication and political theatre. The topic of how political theatre can be used for activism, tying into voter apathy specifically, is examined.
Keywords: political theatre, epic theatre, propaganda, voter apathy ?
Changing the World Through Artistic Activism
From the times of the early Greeks and Romans, theatre and performance art has been deeply rooted in sociological and political happenings. A large amount of the intention of this political based theatre was to address major social issues of the time. After all, how can you begin fix the government when seemingly everyone has busied themselves thinking about anything but politics? Voter apathy is a major issue plaguing American politics. Voter apathy refers to the general disassociation of eligible voters from their countries’ political atmosphere which results in a lowered rate of voter turnout to polls. Although some may believe that drama has lost its ability to affect society, political theatre has the power to stimulate changes in audience attitudes, which can ultimately lead to positive impacts on social issues, such as voter apathy.
This paper aims to explore what constitutes effective political theatre and comedy and how political theatre and performance art can impact the feelings, opinions, and emotions of audience members. The issue of political theatre’s effect on voter apathy is a complex issue because information is needed from a number of different disciplines in order to understand the problem as a whole. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, theatre, communications, and political science have been the most helpful in gaining insight on the issue.
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not political theatre is helpful or effective in regard to sociopolitical climate. However, there has been no substantial research done on the ability of theatre to directly affect voter turnout and apathy. The goal of this paper is not to provide surefire answers on the subject, but rather to explore what power political theatre may have over the minds of its audiences and its connection to voter apathy.
To understand how theatre could affect social issues such as voter apathy, one must closely look at political theatre and political performance art’s trends in society. Political performance art can be seen throughout centuries in many different countries. In some countries, political performance art was used by the majority in order to persuade the minority into compliance, and in other countries, it has been used as a tool for the oppressed to find solidarity within each other.
For example, during the World War II era, Nazi Germany was infamous for its anti-Semitic propaganda. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2018), during this time, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, director of the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, seized all forms of public communication, including newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings, rallies, art, music, movies, and radio, that he found to be in any way distressing or threatening to Nazi philosophies (1). Any messages that were not exactly in ordinance with Nazi ideals were completely banned from media. Censorship like this affects audiences’ breadth of knowledge of their world, which in turn has the ability to slant their views and beliefs to whatever the people in charge of controlling the media want them to think. This type of censorship can often be observed in countries with a dictatorial form of government, such as present-day North Korea.
In another scenario, Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright during the last years of the Weimar Republic, used a style of theatre that he called “epic theatre” which is used in contrast to dramatic theatre. If dramatic theatre has the ultimate goal of drawing the audience in and using their capacity for action, Brecht’s epic theatre, also called “instructive theatre,” had the goal of soliciting the audience’s capacity for action (Bracco 2011). Brecht’s theatre operated on the belief that theatre should not cause the audience to emotionally experience the characters and story, but should instead provoke a rational and intellectual assessment of what appears on stage.
Some of his most famous plays include Mother Courage and Her Children and Saint Joan of the Stockyards which both critique social institutions of their time. Mother Courage and Her Children was heavily focused on challenging the institution of war mongering. Saint Joan of the Stockyards challenges capitalist ideals, such as the wealthy benefiting at the expense of the poor. His plays really made the audiences have an intellectual response to what was being presented, which he hoped would prompt them to seek out change in their world.
Around the world, theatre and the arts have also been used to provide solidarity among oppressed groups. In Zimbabwe, freedom fighters and the masses would host pungwe gatherings, which were all-night community gatherings for entertainment and education about their struggle for independence (Matiza 2015). The sense of togetherness and a collective determination was made apparent through music, dance and theatre and helped to inspire everyone to keep fighting for their goal. Theatre and the arts have the ability to transcend individuality and help people unite towards a common goal.
After researching the issue of modern political performance in America, two main categories have been discovered: political performance influencing audiences how to vote and political performance influencing audiences to vote. The category of influencing audiences how to vote includes any kind of performance containing propaganda for or against any campaigning party. Political performance influencing audiences to vote includes any performance that aims to upset, disrupt, or enlighten audiences’ views about their country and political environment, which, in turn, leads them to an ultimately intellectual response that prompts an internal inquiry or change in attitude or mindset.
Political performance in America can be observed almost constantly in media. For example, popular television programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report have been influential in the political climate of the Unites States. Becker (2012), a communications professor at Towson University who often studies the effects of political entertainment, noticed that parody-driven late-night comedy shows are commonly used as platforms by political candidates to engage in self-satire. This often aids them in representing themselves in a more human way. For example, Al Gore and George Bush appeared as characters on a Saturday Night Live skit series called “Presidential Bash 2000,” during which the actors portraying them nailed their impersonations and were able to joke about the other and themselves during the mock debate. The actors effectively made the candidates appear more easygoing by humorously impersonating them.
Former presidential candidate John McCain appeared on Saturday Night Live during his candidacy, making fun of his own campaign in a sketch with Tina Fey portraying his running mate, Sarah Palin. Becker (2012) said “McCain managed to make fun of his age, his sinking campaign operation, his maverick style, and his choice of Palin as his running mate all in one short skit” (794). Donald Trump also hosted Saturday Night Live during his campaign. By participating in Saturday Night Live sketches, Trump was able to detach himself from whatever popular story was running about him at the time and just be himself, a real person, who can take a joke and laugh at himself, on television. This is usually not an easy feat to accomplish for people who are constantly in the media’s spotlight, but comedy television provides a convenient platform for that kind of undertaking.
On The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert hosts a satirical late-night show in which he takes on the persona of a conservative republican and addresses Democratic politicians and their media. Colbert’s satire is different than other popular television programs because if one were to watch his show from an outside perspective, one might not be able to immediately tell that he was mocking the people or institution he’s talking about. His dead-pan humor is riveting and allows him to captivate audiences’ attention while speaking his truth. Some of the most popular segments on The Colbert Report include “Better Know a District” and “The World,” which mimic and parody real news programs.
Becker (2012) outlines the key principles of satire as aggression, judgement, play and laughter, and a critical viewpoint on reality (795). In order for political satire to be effective, it should incorporate all of these elements. These features are what makes political comedy and parody funny to audiences. Bailey (2018) found that news parody television programming is becoming an increasingly popular source of news for younger citizens and is even beginning to compete with mainstream news channels. They said that news parody “encapsulates a search for truth and meaning in a time when populations have grown increasingly suspicious that traditional discourses no longer suffice” (203). Frequent media hyperbole and deception has caused news parody to often perform a “watchdog” role in politics, often exposing major media outlets’ trickery. Political news parody and satire have the ability to solicit the type of critical, integrative thought processes that citizens need in order to fully understand the political situations of the present. In these satirical programs, interpretation is left up to the audience. There may be an explicitly portrayed message, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the viewers to take away substantial meaning.
Theatre and the arts provide a platform for people to express ideas, especially ideas about the social environment of their world and their embodied experiences. Political theatre presents an opportunity for audience and actors alike to participate in an emotional and intellectual journey together.
Some types of political performance may be considered less audience friendly than other types of political theatre, such as the recent run of the Broadway play 1984, which was based on George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production of 1984 was a highly controversial adaptation that aimed to make a political statement by shocking audiences and by making them physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Andrews (2017) said that audience members fainted, vomited, fought, screamed, and even walked out during performances. The performing actors sustained very real injuries while working on the production. One critic described the production as “torture porn,” another as a “grim, sphincter-clenching sit” (1).
From a theatrical viewpoint, the directors could not have made the decision on a whim to feature something like that in their production. Icke and Macmillan had to have made a conscious decision to include such upsetting themes and imagery. This could have been done in order to solicit a visceral reaction from audience member and to create unrest in their minds, so much that it triggers an intellectual response, which then can create a change in attitude. Alongside 1984, other productions, such as a New York production of Julius Caesar and the Tony award-winning Hamilton, have also been a part of national conversation.
Recently, Salisbury University produced an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. This production was heavily focused on and drew most of its inspiration from the occupy wall street movement. The show featured projections of live footage and images from the protests and included allusions and references to highly relevant political territory, such as the ongoing issue of the 1% versus everybody else. Political theatre is happening everywhere and is becoming more and more prevalent, especially within younger generations, as a result of heightening tensions in the country’s sociopolitical atmosphere.
As a final push, after all of the emotional and intellectual turbulence, some theatres have started setting up voter registration tables after performances to inspire people to go vote and make a difference (Gaines 2016). Some theatres are even beginning to register as polling places to promote civic engagement. The logic makes perfect sense: if you don’t like what you see, go fix it. Art imitates life, and life imitates art. Bracco (2011) noted:
While politicians use factual narratives to invoke emotion and accentuate their points, playwrights use inventive stories to push audiences outside their comfort zones. Politics is so much a part of the way we experience our lives—from the communities we live in to the food we eat, to the way we are educated, and to the resources we do or don’t have access to. It only makes sense that the stories onstage reflect these realities. [Directors] are choosing to create and present stories that ask tough questions about the world around us. By doing so, they are serving their communities (1).
Theatre has the ability to speak across the great divide. As people laugh and cry together, they are transformed. The emotional and intellectual journeys that audiences are taken on is a powerful experience that is unlike any other. Renowned scholar Brueggemann (1989) said that poetic language, such as that of comedy and theatre, is a powerful subversive language for speaking truth to power.
A study by Bryan (2008) supports the notion that theatre has the ability to change audiences’ and participants’ attitudes about social issues. Bryan began teaching an Introduction to Theatre Class at the university level and found that many students were exhibiting high levels of apathy and ignorance about social issues in their world. The students were split up into groups and were tasked with writing a short play focused on a social issue of their choosing. By the end of the semester, almost all of the students exhibited more awareness and sensitivity toward social issues. By making students confront their own preconceptions and limited experience of the world, their perspectives on hot-ticket issues were affected.
Political theatre and performance art inspire visceral emotions from audience members, which helps them realize intellectually that there is something wrong their world. The heightened level of emotion can be so intense that it triggers an intellectual response, which then can create a change in attitude, and a change in action. Theatre has the power to positively impact social issues, such as the issue of voter apathy.
From countries all around the world, to the United States, to present day Salisbury University, political theatre and performance art is an important tool for heightening political association. Although some, such as John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular theatre company, may believe that political theatre could never actually be the cause of social change, it still remains a viable and effective tool for people to use to cultivate a unity, a collective determination for change (Jenkins 2011). By presenting audiences with thoughtful interpretations, potent political thoughts and imagery, and intellectually and emotionally captivating performances, political theatre has the power to unhinge the masses and inspire change. More research should be done by disciplinarians in the fields of communication, theatre, and political science in order to gain more understanding of the complex connection between political performance art and voter apathy.
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