VNPAC: The Politics of Theater

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Bookstalls: musicals on race, including Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking Caroline or Change

My first day at the Theatre Communications Group conference was a bit truncated: I had my own musical-theatrical performance and recording that evening, and so I was unable to go to the Opening General Session presented by Jonah Lehrer, contributing editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide. Lehrer discussed “How We Decide: the New Science of Decision Making.” The theme was in keeping with the progressive agenda of the conference, which had four main motifs: artists and artistry; race and gender; the arts learning continuum; and creative ecology.

Earlier that day, I was able to attend the session “Acting Together on the World Stage: Theatre in Conflict Zones II,” run by Daniel Banks of DNAWORKS, and Roberta Levitow, from Theatre Without Borders. The session showed ways in which theatre can function very powerfully to develop new understandings of sensitive political situations in communities. There are two examples I’d like to talk about.

The first was about a Hindu and Muslim section of Calcutta that had had horrendous violence in 2002. Ruth Margraff, a playwright (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) worked with the assistance of the US State Department to create a peace work, Hidden Fires, about the massacre in Gujarat (Calcutta). She involved street kids, women’s groups, neighbors, the police. The actors, all amateurs, learned to take on the parts of the opposite side; the work helped create greater understanding of the other group’s point of view.

Ruth stressed that it is never simple to work in these situations, and that it is important to recognize the prejudices and concerns of all sides, including those in the government (India’s and ours), and dangers the participants may face by being involved in a project that articulates threats to various powers.


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Imaginative theatrical puppets by Tiffany Lange at VonOrthal Puppet Studio in Chicago

The second piece, discussed by playwright Lisa Schlesinger (Columbia College, Chicago) was about an effort in 2009 to circumvent the wall constructed by the Israelis between Palestinian and Jewish communities in Ramallah and Jerusalem. Lisa had hoped to create a play at the checkpoint between the two cities, with the idea of having half the play on one side and half on the other. The Israeli authorities turned down the request, so Lisa and her colleagues from the Theatre of the Oppressed, among others, brought the Bread and Puppet Theatre to work with the youth of Ramallah and to create a parade of something they desired: to be able to go to the sea (not easy, with the current barriers). Lisa showed the resulting artworks: fantastical sea creatures, waves, etc. all in a parade through the main street of Ramallah, to the joy and puzzlement of the older people on the sidelines.

There are two other works I’d like to mention that are related to Lisa’s experience, both of which use theatrical expression to articulate the difficulties of split communities. The musical one is The Shouting Fence, created by British composer Orlando Gough, about a Syrian Druze community that was split as a result of the 1967 war.

There is a clip of the performance, in Amsterdam, in 2004, with 500 voices:



The second is from “Artists without Walls,” which in 2004 installed two video cameras on either side of the wall near Jerusalem and filmed scenes from each side, which were then projected simultaneously on the other side. Thus the wall became “transparent” for several hours. (If you go to this site, be sure to scroll all the way to the right, to get the entire story plus photos.)

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Strolling Blueberry with Absurdist Verbal Accompanist

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