Recently at a symposium on theatre, Richard Montoya, of Culture Clash fame made a comment that readdressed a frequent question, “What is theatre?” With fervent passion Richard spoke of the drama that unfolds on our streets daily. This drama entails the energies spent by undirected, unfocused men and women posturing and combating in venues opportune to their cultures. With passions at times leading to death, conflicts with ritual overtones are played out over and over while the community watches, waiting for the final winner to become the new leader.
We, on the outside of this fray, look at these events of gang violence and intercultural conflict and deem them to be byproducts of criminal activities. We assume drugs and territory control to be the causes, and we pass a judgment that if only these people would see the world from our perspective, the violence would stop. Peace and harmony would reign, with economic prosperity soon to follow.
Yet, if we step back for a moment and look again, can we not see this public drama as a real-world version of the issues we play out on our stages? When modern drama was created, it did not arise by miracle or even by creative genius. In all probability it grew out of a need. Formalized rituals as old as humankind have been played out in communities as primitive as early man gathered around a campfire.
When groups of hunters returned to camp, the distribution of resources would be the first order of business. If we watch a nature film of a lion bringing the kill to the pride, the ensuing battle over which lion eats first may provide a glimpse into how those early campsite negotiations may have gone. While combat is one method of exerting dominance, the cost to the camp might be the loss of a hunter or a number of hunters. That loss could prove to be detrimental. So combat may have become ritualized; perhaps it evolved to a verbal “combat” of which hunter could tell the best story.
However it happened, over time, humans developed a process whereby the expressions of dominance, the histories that justified the same, and the varied emotions that accompanied the telling of the community’s stories became ritualized. Theatre was born more from negotiation within a community then from individual genius.
Where we as a society are now challenged, is that we have become so large, so fragmented, that it becomes easier to judge and dismiss those with whom we don’t relate than to negotiate with them. We have become so embroiled in our individual sense of “right”, that expressions variant to our vision, our norm, are discounted as wrong.
So, let’s for a moment consider what we see as street violence to be a real-life form of theatre. Here is, for example, a confrontation between members of different gangs in front of a taco truck. There’s a stage where members of the community converge. There’s drama, a perceived slight, a question of control, unacceptable social behavior, any and all which needs to be addressed – resolved. There’s the cast with symbolic costuming and make-up, and roles that fill out the definition of the specific community’s culture. We have a setting, we have a plot, we have a cast, and we have an inciting incident.
This is theatre. If we recognize it as such, we can begin to understand. If we can reach past the ethnocentricity of cultural condemnation, we can bridge the communication divide. If we can speak—if we can cross that gulf—we can reduce the alienation between “them and us”. If we do that, we lower the mistrust, and then we can begin to hear. When we hear what is being said, we’ve helped give a voice to those who feel unheard. When the unheard can speak, they’re less likely to strike.
How then do we get this message out? How then do we let those in conflict know that theatre can give them a voice? That is the challenge; each company that claims to be a part of a community must examine itself to see if they are meeting the needs of their community. It becomes incumbent upon us as patrons to let the theatre know if we believe them to be actively responsive to community interest. We must define those interests. It’s up to the theatres to respond.
So what is theatre? Theatre can be many things. It can be a place of entertainment, a place of exploration, or it can be a place to go when there’s nothing else to do. But at all times and most importantly, theatre is an opportunity for every aspect, every variation of human experience to be presented for examination. Theatre is the voice of the unheard; theatre is our opportunity to make society a little better. Theatre is a chance for the disenfranchised to participate in society, and theatre is confrontation without violence.