‘Can theatre change the world?’ it’s a pretty epic question isn’t it. It could sound rather grandious, but it is the question that fuels all of the theatre that I make.
The beauty of theatre is that its effect is unquantifiable, you can’t commission a government survey to reduce its influence into statistics. The person whose life is changed after one line in a play reaches straight to their heart and shifts the way they see the world, will not be the person who comes to congratulate you at the end of the show, they will walk away into the night, anonymous. Theatre is built on trust, a trust that is sadly lacking in the government’s current approach to the arts.
I think it’s fair to say that each of us receives and withholds information in a different way, some of us are good at remembering facts and figures, others learn through narrative. Some of us thrive in the pressure of examinations, others are far more able to show their potential through coursework. This diversity is what makes the human race such a beautiful thing (I only wish Michael Gove were able to accept that simple fact). Some of us pour over political analysis, others find political ideas more approachable when discussed through a play. I am of the later group.
I learn about the world through the arts, that’s just how my brain works. I learnt about the Civil Rights movement in America through the lyrics of Public Enemy, Stravinsky taught me about early 20th century Russia and Shakespeare taught me about Tudor monarchy. Ideas embodied by actors make them come alive for me. As an audience member I get to choose which of the characters I agree with most, there would be no drama if every character had the same beliefs. Theatre, when it’s done right, poses questions for the audience to answer rather than providing answers. As theatre makers our job is to constantly empathise with people who are different from ourselves, to the point where we can make them believable. If the current coalition government employed the same level of empathy that theatre demands this country would look very different right now.
I’m currently the Co-Artistic Director of Theatre Uncut along with Hannah Price. Theatre Uncut was started in response to the cuts in public spending announced in October 2010, so it began an act of protest rather than an abstract artistic endeavor. We make short plays about the current political climate available for anyone to download and perform anywhere rights free. The idea is to get people talking about what is going on the world, to open their eyes. Over the past 3 years our plays have been performed by over 3,000 across 17 countries. We’ve heard of performances on public buses in Mexico, in a high school on a US Air Force base in Japan and on the streets of Spain. Each of those performers will have had to discuss the issues within the play to be able to perform it, that means we have engaged over 3,000 people in conversations about equality, human rights and the social effect of austerity. Any one of these conversations has the potential to turn to action, which then has the potential to be heard by someone in a position of power, then effecting a concrete decision that would change people’s lives. The pupils who are working on Theatre Uncut scripts in their classroom may turn out to be the future leaders of their country and we have encouraged them to empathise with people who are different to themselves. That is our job.
Theatre Uncut has no drum to bang, we encourage people discover their own opinion, rather that to share ours. I don’t hide the fact that I think that the welfare state is the best thing to have happened to the UK in the last century, that we should all fight for the NHS with every scrap of energy we have and that there is no need for anyone anywhere to earn more than £100,000 (or the equivalent) a year, but not everyone we work with shares my beliefs. Our rehearsal rooms are full of questions and arguments, of research and learning, we may not agree, that’s the joy, but we always return to the core necessity to create a piece of theatre, empathy.
There’s no coincidence that historically artists have been outlawed in oppressive regimes, those in power know the answer to the question, they know the power of empathy, otherwise they would have no need to fear the influence that artists can have.
So my answer is a resounding yes, theatre can change the world, you just have to trust it.
Emma Callander and Hannah Price will be directing Theatre Uncut 2013 at the Young Vic from the 19th – 23rd November. Scripts can be downloaded from www.theatreuncut.com