The Role of Theater During Times of Division

How performance art can affect its audience when people have opposing views.

In the midst of change and conflict, it can be difficult to find outlets for the emotions and thoughts that race through one’s head. However, theater has always been a way for people to address the issues that surround them and to express themselves. For centuries, artists have been using their words and performances to bring to light the issues that plague this world.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Back in the 1940s, Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, created theater that challenged the socioeconomic and political tension of the time. Kym Longhi, a theater professor here at the University of Minnesota, has studied Brecht and his theater extensively over her career. She spoke about how Brecht “resisted the hypnosis of the catharsis of theater because he was convinced that whenever an audience is going to a theater they are being trained by whoever is on the stage.” This idea of “training” an audience permeated his work and motivated him to create art that would train people to do more than sit and listen empathetically. Instead, he wanted his audience to be critical of what they were watching.

Even some of the most well-known playwrights such as Shakespeare wrote art that highlighted the issues at hand. Shakespeare highlighted the true strength of women during a time where they were often thought of as below men by writing strong characters such as Cleopatra, Rosalind and even Juliet. He utilized his art to showcase a group that was not being accurately portrayed in their society.

“Good theater makes you think and feel to profound depths and reminds us that life is rife with questions that baffle.”

Most recently, Brandon Victor Dixon, a cast member in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” addressed the vice president elect, Mike Pence, after a recent performance. “Art is meant to bring people together. It’s meant to raise consciousness,” Dixon said, a belief that was carried throughout his speech after the show. He spoke out about the diversity of America and the fear that this recent election has instilled in many of this nation’s citizens. This event has sparked debate as to whether or not this direct address to Vice President-elect Pence was appropriate or not. Regardless of where people stand, it raises the question of the role and place that theater and performance art has in today’s society.

Many students and faculty here at the University believe that theater’s goal is to provoke questions and emotions for the audience. “Good theater makes you think and feel to profound depths and reminds us that life is rife with questions that baffle,” said Michael Haubner, a second year student in the BA Theater program.  Another student, Chrissy Taylor, echoed those thoughts. “Theater is supposed to act as a mirror to reflect something about the audience’s lives back for them in a new way,” he said. Kym Longhi said that one goal within her practice “is to bring work that constantly brings the [current] situation into question,” a feat that can be difficult, but an act that reiterates this need for theater to pose questions.

When looking at the role of theater, it is very pertinent to look at theater for social change. Sonja Kuftinec, a professor and director here at the University, has been involved in what a lot of people would call theater for social change for many years now.

“Theater draws its transformational power from gathering a collective audience into a public space. The collective impacts the individual’s response and reminds us that we move through the world in relation to others. That power can be used towards various political ends, not necessarily progressive ones,” Kuftinec said.

Through theater, people are able to address the questions of this world and delve into what they truly believe through a shared experience.

Thinking of theater in this way, every time that people are gathered in a space together, whether that be in a traditional theater, at a rally or at any other public venue, it is seen that those in attendance are being affected not only by the person who has their attention, but also by those around them. This sense of community and shared experience is another way in which theater interacts with the world. It engages those watching and relates to their own community and lives.

Through theater, people are able to address the questions of this world and delve into what they truly believe through a shared experience. During these times of division, it is important to continue to engage in these conversations with an open mind and challenge what we believe.