There was an almost eerie silence on Facebook the night of November 8th, 2016. There was a lot of chatter, but there was a profound absence of my family. To be more precise, my theatre family. There wasn’t the usual banter and jocularity and sniping that had come to be so much a part of the run up to the elections. As I watched the returns on television, and kept scanning back to Nate Silver for hope, I saw the sadness and fear that I was experiencing create a void of contact. It was overwhelming, and for me, someone seldom short on words, it took me nearly a week before I could begin to sort out my shock and reactions to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.
Conversations slowly began to emerge and on one thread, Aaron Shanks, an actor in Seattle, posted a map. It showed the concentrations of voters by party throughout the country. As the news was reporting, it was mostly the urban centers that voted for Hillary, and the vast majority of other territory was speckled in red dots. And then Aaron noted in his commentary that the concentrations of Hillary voters also happened to coincide with the theatre centers of our nation.
That raises some interesting questions. I suppose without some deep anthropological studies, it would be difficult to assign direct correlation between politics and the theatre, but it is undeniable that modern theatre has for nearly 3000 years been the conscience of society. Storytelling has always been the history of humanity, but theatre, scripted scenes presented as allegory and moral examination began around the 6th century BCE. Since that time, in fits and starts theatre has sustained a hold on the crystal ball of human consciousness. Theatre has played out the “what ifs”, the “could have been” and the launching point of alternative possibilities.
So be it cause or reaction, it would be safe to say that theatre plays an important role in the development of cultural growth. Perhaps like the oracles of old it both foretells and explains the world in which we live.
Which takes me back to the map previously mentioned. While it is with certainty that each of the regions covered in blue has access to professional theatre, what is equally true is that the rest of the nation has some acquaintance with theatre. I have mentioned this before, there is hardly a town or a village or even a hamlet that does not have some form of theatre as part of its culture. It may only be the annual school play, or the harvest festival, or a thousand other variations on the theme. The point being is that the value of theatre as an oracle on society is recognized and dare we use the expression venerated?
How can artists dedicated to the expansion of theatre both as art and cultural influence begin to be involved and hence become influential in all of the areas that are not blue? Can we make the case that theatre as an art is transformational? It provides opportunity of vision and in seeing beyond ourselves as we expand our consciousness of humanity.
As ancient hunters and gatherers we created gods to reason all of the questions we could not grasp. As we have grown over the millenniums, we have become more observant, more understanding and less reliant upon the mysticism of theology. Through scores of centuries, we have grasped the transcendental thinking of religious leaders and incorporated those values into our lives. And herein lies the secret ingredient of theatre – we amass the values, filter the lessons and ask questions. Religions of old mostly discourage questions and rely on “faith in the unknown” as an answer to questions yet unresolved. Theatre always asks the question, what if?
If as artists we wish to impact our culture as a whole, if we wish to carry the lessons of openness and acceptance and diversity, then we must move out of our safe havens and become a part of the culture we want to effect. If our values are more important to us than the aspiration of our dreams, then we must engage and weave ourselves into the fiber of those that have yet to grasp the messages we carry. In doing so, we will meet our aspirations fulfill our dreams and influence a society to a better tomorrow.