This article was originally published on Arc on November 30, 2016.
Is the theatre supposed to be safe for anyone?
The great political dramedy of our time continues!
Hot on the heels of Donald Trump’s shocking election as the 45th President of these United States opens a new act in this year’s hit play, Divided Nation: An Experiment in Getting What We Deserve. This third and decidedly meta act stars Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the cast of Hamilton, and President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter “@realDonaldTrump” (the titillating star of Acts 1 and 2 and all-around titan of a character in our digital age). Funny business aside, here’s the quick rundown of events:
- Vice-President-elect Mike Pence attends Hamilton with his daughter in New York City where the audience boos upon his entering the theater.
- The cast of Hamilton reads a message to Mr. Pence at the end of the show.
- @realDonaldTrump goes on one of his patented Twitter rants:
To address the fullest possible picture, a threefold critique is needed:
- Assessing the veracity of @realDonaldTrump’s statement: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”
- Assessing the propriety of actors addressing an audience member directly. This requires asking: What is the relationship of actor and audience?
- Assessing the veracity of @realDonaldTrump’s statement: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated…”
#2 is an important question for another article.
#3: Please stop; you sound ridiculous.
#1: is where I’d like dig in.
Let’s start by saying that @realDonaldTrump was probably not trying to make an absolute statement about what theatre is. It’s certainly possible that he was, but let’s be charitable and say that he was being both hyperbolic (because, to be honest, he’s kind of emotional) and very specific to the Pence/Hamilton drama.
He could have meant that the theater must be a “safe place” in that an individual shouldn’t be personally and negatively addressed before, during, or after a performance. I think that’s a defensible (though complex) position, but we’re sliding into #2. Again, that’s another article.
With these qualifications behind us, it seems that @realDonaldTrump has opened up the door to discuss theatre’s purpose as an art form. So for that, thanks for starting the conversation DJT!
These are some of the most distinctive and important qualities of theatre:
(1) It is experienced live.
This is probably the most important and essential part of what separates theatre from other art forms. The experience of the art takes place in real time.
(2) It is experienced in community.
Theatre is people watching people surrounded by other people. It’s kind of awkward really.
(3) It brings together artists and craftspeople from a wide range of skills.
Including: writers, directors, actors, scenic designers, costume designers, lighting designers, sound designers, electricians, carpenters, painters, etc. Theatre, as an art form, is highly collaborative. In fact, it lives or dies by the quality (or lack thereof) of its collaboration.
(4) At its best it is morally, existentially, and culturally conscious.
Theatre is concerned with the moral and social issues of its time and can be fairly direct in addressing them. This often leads to the final quality.
(5) It is offensive.
Visually, aurally, intellectually, and aesthetically offensive. There are often bright lights, sudden noises, haze machines, dim lamps, people yelling, loud music, people crying on stage, people crying in the seat next to you, people saying things you don’t like, people saying things you like too much, people believing things you believe, people poking holes in what you believe, people making you question your presuppositions, people making you ashamed of your judgments when you walked in, and the list could go on and on.
For the thinking and feeling person it is not a safe place, nor should it be. Whether you are conservative or progressive, when it becomes too much like an echo chamber, when you are only hearing what you like to hear, find a different theatre, or at least another theatre.
The theatre, at its best, should regularly challenge our answers to the big questions about our existence; it should consistently make us second guess what we assume about the man in the row ahead of us or the woman on the corner as we were walking in; and it should brutally represent reality as we see it or perhaps as we have refused to see it.
Our compassion for others and our self-awareness should evolve as a consequence of watching a play or musical. Theatre cultivates our ability to listen to the person in front of us and requires us to not speak. This basic human skill may be more important now than ever. When theatre shies away from any of its distinctive qualities it loses its potency and sacrifices its position as one of the great social and moral art forms.
Must the theatre always be a special place? If done well, it will be. Must the theatre always be a safe place? Yes, but only in a physical sense, of course. In many other ways, absolutely not.