This week we launch a new feature called RESPONDING TO OUR TIMES. In this space, theater professionals discuss how local, national, and global events are affecting their lives, their art, their thinking and their practice. Our first respondent, Alexis Greene, is a founding editor of WIT Magazine, an author and a theater journalist. She writes this week with the recent Women’s Marches still very much on her mind.
AFTER THE MARCH
By Alexis Greene
Despair and fear, sadness and fury. These emotions have swept through me since the November election threatened to up-end democracy. How do I resist? What actions can I take? Possibilities hurtle around the corners of my mind, as I try to devise a plan, a tactic, that will enable me to resist the politician-thugs who now hold sway in the U.S. government, in what I can only describe as a terrifying right-wing coup.
I try to do my own work while bombarded by threats to women, free expression, immigrants, peace, LGBTQ rights, public education, the NEA and the NEH, health care, the natural world around us. I try to answer the “Where-do-we-go-from-here?” challenge, as well as that eternal “Can-the-theater-really-do-anything?” question.
And then on January 21st I marched. Well, really I stood, because 400,000 women, children and men pouring into a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan makes for human gridlock. But like the song says, the sun came out, and people held their signs high and cheered and chanted, and depression and anger were transformed into jubilant defiance.
The historic, women-led marches that brought millions around the world into the streets were the democracy-in-action that we have been longing for since the campaign and the election. They were the much-needed antidote to the new administration’s poisonous misogyny, prejudice and divisiveness.
Still, the march is over, anger resurfaces, even stronger than before, and questions come again: What do we in the theater do next? Can theater really have an impact?
The answer to the first, unfortunately, is all too evident. The President and his fellow know-nothings are threatening to eradicate the NEA and the NEH, something, in the case of the arts endowment, that Republicans have been aching to do since the 1990s, when the NEA 4 (performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck) were awarded grants for bold work that Congress found objectionable.
Action–writing letters, making calls, organizing–is urgent to save these agencies, not only because the arts and humanities are essential to the human spirit, but also because this administration is obviously eager to squelch free expression wherever it exists. And free expression is what theatre is all about.
As for theater’s impact on our noisome political scene, perhaps it’s best not to worry about that and just make theater. After all, at the heart of theater is empathy, and empathy, according to the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, a faculty rock star at the University of Chicago, is a requirement of a participatory democracy.
Nussbaum calls it “the narrative imagination,” or, as she writes eloquently in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”
Why is the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to empathize, essential for a functioning democracy? According to Nussbaum’s manifesto, we can better understand the needs of those who are different from ourselves–and ultimately we can unite to eradicate inequality and discrimination–if, through theater and literature, we allow ourselves to enter into others’ lives and feelings and circumstances.
Ultimately, Nussbaum believes that the more we are able to see other human beings as “full people,” the more we will “overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.”
This is not a fast process, this action of theater and literature helping people to become responsive citizens of a democracy.
But in answer to the question “Can the theater really do anything?”– and borrowing a line from the 44th President–“Yes, it can.” Writing plays, making theater, going to the theater–is resistance.
The NYC march was extraordinary not only for the thousands of women but also for the many young people and children. Both these photos were taken at 3rd Ave. and 47th St., as we were about to start marching. The young woman’s name is Julia. She is not old enough to vote yet. But soon…