How might difficult thinking play a greater part in public life? E.g. thought which is not binary, is ambivalent, dialectical, challenging of power structures, institutionalised dogma, or moral consensus?
What are the barriers to radical theatre and thought actually reaching a wider public?
Jennifer Moss Waghorn
Juliet Gilkes Romero, Playwright
Professor Peter Holbrook, The University of Queensland
Provocation – Juliet Gilkes Romero
A bust of George Orwell was recently erected outside the BBC Broadcasting House with the motto ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
The quotation comes from the preface to Animal Farm, which was initially rejected by numerous publishers; including Faber and Faber, then led by TS Eliot. At this point Great Britain was allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union, the focus of Orwell’s satirical attack; Eliot’s justification for the book’s rejection was that he had ‘no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at this time.’
Juliet’s opening question for us, in light of Orwell’s relevance to the present day, was: are we George Orwells, or are we TS Eliots?
Within Juliet’s own experience as a journalist, she felt that she had a duty to investigate, report on, inform, and educate in order to have these difficult conversations; but with fewer press regulations and less money for quality programme making, she felt that the news outlets were becoming more reactionary and less rigorous. It was one of the reasons she left the BBC.
A particular problem was the advent of twenty-four-hour news, which Juliet saw as the beginning of a process of ‘dumbing down’ reports: there was no time for in-depth analysis. What is now needed in response to this kind of dialogue is deep critical thought, and a willingness to broach potentially taboo subjects.
Having left the BBC, Juliet found that writing plays and making theatre provided a “fantastic crucible for addressing the things that we’re afraid to say to each other”. Her recent work as a co-writer on Day of the Living (performed in the spring season of the 2018 Mischief Festival at The Other Place) drew on her experiences working for Sky News after leaving the BBC, when she covered the story of the forced disappearance of 43 Mexican students at gunpoint in Ayotzhinapa. The students are still missing; others who were killed at the scene were brutally tortured.
This kind of story usually only gets one to two minutes on air, and then slips down the bulletin after a few weeks: the show at the RSC gave Juliet the opportunity to tell the story more fully, with “masks, music, and pitch-black satire”. The show provided the opportunity to talk about something profoundly difficult, and to engage with an audience, many of whom left wanting to make a difference, for example by joining Amnesty International, or spreading the word amongst friends.
Challenging and radical theatre encourages us to ask those difficult questions: questions about how we live, what we want for society and each other, and how was can digest the many polarised issues that are happening today.
We’re currently wrestling with difficult questions of immigration, Brexit and Donald Trump, and it’s incumbent on not just theatre, but news organisations to speak truth to power. If it is the responsibility of journalists to present those truths incisively, it is the responsibility of those in power to listen to truths they don’t want to hear. There are people risking their lives to bring to our attention hard stories that we find difficult to discuss in the public sphere and we cannot allow them to be brushed aside.
Those working within the system, and within recognised structures of power, politics and the media, have a duty to stand up and speak out against injustice. After the terrible experiences of the twentieth century, which were supposed to be ‘never again’, terrifyingly similar situations are now arising. It is up to us to make a difference and encourage people not to be afraid to speak out. Are we TS Eliots or George Orwells?
Provocation – Peter Holbrook
We are currently experiencing an ecological crisis: living on an increasingly damaged planet, threatened with a complete loss of civilisation, of art, of everything. As a species we have never had to deal with something like this before. We are effectively living through a time of “war”; war against life on earth, a period of disorder and collapse. Peter believed that the Radical Mischief conference spoke to the difficult times we are living through.
A key part of our self-destruction is linked to the fact that our economy is increasingly and avowedly devoted to the amassing of private wealth. With the gross inequality of wealth distribution, the cultivation of consumerism, and the bleak environmental outlook, our society experiences both depression and complete powerlessness, and the need to constantly search for entertainment and pleasure. This search essentially cultivates a non-thinking society.
As Mark Fisher discusses, this approach of ‘capitalist realism’ has resulted in a deliberate cultivation of idiocy across the arts and sciences, and nothing is immune from the idolatrous cult of money. This ‘cult’ caters to the worst parts of ourselves, as the ‘I want it so I must have it’ approach becomes normalised. Nihilism has become the official philosophy of the age, as all that matters is ‘do what thou wilt’.
Alain Badiou commented that nihilism is implicit in market relations; with the rise of ubiquitous commercialism, it permeates all aspects of our culture. All previous cultures and societies have tried to push this ethos away, as frightening and destructive – until now. Having given up on religion, we’re giving up on arts and culture.
Arts and culture should – and generally do – try to stand against this cult of idiocy, upholding the tenet of ‘man cannot live by bread alone’. The most important redemptive option is maintaining the dialectic, and speaking across boundaries. We need to find bigger and bigger groups of people to combat our problems.
A potential way of combatting the negativity is to look at what people value, and find the positives in them: for example, while nationalism and isolationism can have extremely negative effects, there are positive ways to express the values of patriotism and family in order to counteract them.
Respect for particular members of the community can also be amplified and used to connect us to our core values: if people who work for the military or in healthcare are particularly respected, we can use this approval of the drive to protect and heal to express positivity.
These ideas need to be expressed through a language of commonality, and not through more theoretical or academic ‘jargon’; we have to avoid exclusion and elitism in order to break through these barriers and develop meaningful conversations.
Stupidity vs Difficulty?
Academically, we explore complicated and complicating material. But discussing difficulty in terms of stupidity and ‘dumbing down’ is unnecessarily dismissive, and fuels the problematic ‘us and them’ divide. Different backgrounds, education and opportunities result in what might be perceived as differing intelligence levels: it is unfair to risk excluding people on this basis.
There is power in simple and enjoyable facts and images: such as the recent discovery of a 40,000-year-old bone flute, or a photograph of children jumping in a puddle in Aleppo. It is still possible to engage with the complexity of these subjects without oversimplifying or overcomplicating discussions.
The opposite of difficulty is ease, not stupidity; and pleasure and enjoyment should be valued as cultural conduits, providing routes through difficulty. Cultural institutions have a responsibility not to underestimate their audiences.
There shouldn’t be a dichotomy of ‘intellectual’ and ‘normal’ people, when the focus topics are for everybody’s consideration.
Escaping from the Echo Chambers
In order to ask the difficult questions, the key approach is to listen for what creates them in the first place, and to listen to different takes on the answers. Not all artists are left-wing, or anti-Trump: our approach to answering difficult questions is complex, and very varied.
Not everyone shares a left-wing mindset, breaking out of our echo chambers is crucial – and theatre is about empathy. What if we consciously staged right-wing theatre? Shakespeare presents both, and all, sides of the argument through characters’ differing outlooks. The presence of a multifaceted audience is vital.
How do we combat this? The Scottish referendum was given as an example, where rationality won out by ‘being sneaky’, and appealing to emotions. Dry questions of financial logistics were turned into projections of fear about individuals’ monetary problems. Could rationality also win out through humour?
We as academics and theatre makers have the tools to present emotional arguments, to capture people’s sense of humour, of empathy and emotional response to difficult issues: and a duty to broaden the conversation to reach more of the public.
An awareness of different cultural institutions, and their responsibilities to ask different cultural questions, or the same questions in different ways, is key. In the case of theatre as a living art, it only exists temporarily: the creative consumption of its output is potentially very different to libraries and other institutions.
It’s frustrating and difficult when there are fewer and fewer places where people can be collectively creative: libraries are being closed, arts subjects are being cut in schools. There are people fighting against this: in Stoney Stratford Library, which was threatened with closure, the library users borrowed every book except for one: The Borrowers. The library stayed open.
The challenge is to create spaces for people to engage with difficult questions, to feel that they can make a difference, and come back. Access and accessibility form a key part of this, especially cutting across barriers like the class divide to reach new people. A great example of this includes the temporary theatre space being built in Detroit out of shipping containers, or ‘guerrilla’ street theatre in the UK which draws on the audience’s own stories to develop a performance.
Theatre as an art form usually has a captive audience: they have chosen to attend. The real challenge is to reach out to ‘the nihilists’, and the people that either avoid or haven’t been presented with the difficult questions, and stage different viewpoints through theatre.
If we fight for anything as theatre makers, it is about creating space and inviting people to use it. If the real difficulties and threats for art and culture are nihilism and apathy, key ways to combat them are by developing stronger networks of love and creativity, and to acknowledge and be thankful for these.
What about Shakespeare?
If the majority of people attending the Radical Mischief conference were there due to a shared love of Shakespeare, how does he fit into the question of difficulty in the public sphere?
Shakespeare is about complexity, not difficulty. If you can understand Shakespeare, you can understand many other things. He is accessible for all if you find the right channels. Shakespeare may not be enjoyed in the UK because of class, or ‘elitist’ connotations; for many years his work was deliberately portrayed as ‘not for everyone’. However, he has four hundred years of cultural baggage, which includes being populist, and having a global cultural resonance.
Generations of writers and theatre makers have been inspired by Shakespeare: his work has a two-way nourishing effect, bringing life to contemporary performances of his plays.
Theatre More Broadly
How do we get more people interested in plays, both in Shakespeare and in newer radical writing like the Mischief plays?
What does theatre do to our thinking? Does it give people an open experience, and articulate ideas we haven’t thought about? Does it give people the chance or the impetus to go out and fulfil their imaginative or political potential?
Plays can give us the opportunity to present arguments, in a literal dialogue form, everywhere. For example, the difficult questions about the environment were posed by staging Shakespeare in Yosemite National Park, by Katherine Brokaw and Paul Prescott, and through the newly-written Mischief play for 2017, Myth.
On the other side is the more abstract “dark theatre”. Trump’s “performances” are visceral, fascistic and appealing directly to the emotions: he understands the power and politics of theatre. It’s almost unbearable to watch, because you can see why it appeals to some. The fact that this can happen again, after the horrors of the twentieth century, is terrifying.