The problem with political theatre

Frame 1:

How differing views are treated on the internet – but is the same happening in theatre? (From Chainsaw Suit.)

COMMENT: It’s fine to do political theatre aimed at changing people’s minds. But you’re failing in your objective if the only people listening are people who already agree.

Disclaimer: This is not a catch-all attack on every piece of political theatre ever made. If you make political theatre and you’re cross that I’ve said something that you don’t do, please append #notallpoliticaltheatre on to the disagreeable statement.

Last week I did my annual trip to the Vault Festival. My roundup of that will be coming soon, but whilst I was away I missed a rather high-profile event at Northern Stage about how to respond to Donald Trump. (This wasn’t specifically an arts-focused event, but Northern Stage went far beyond a role of host and made a big thing of it.) It was followed on Tuesday with Live Theatre’s seminar on writing political theatre as part of its Live Lab Elevator festival (which, again, I couldn’t get to because of clashes). This wasn’t specifically about him, but I am picking up an obvious pattern ever since that day of November of wanting to use their arts to fight the new Mr. President.

Just to be clear, I think Donald Trump is a complete fucking nutjob just as much as anyone. But as I read through the blogs and social media talking about these events, I have one consistent observation, and a lot of you reading this are not going to like this. Quite simply: I don’t understand what these people expect to achieve. This is not a new problem to anti-Trump plays, but stretches back long before then. No shortage of people intent on using theatre to deliver a message against Trump or the Tories or corporate greed or misogyny or anti-immigrant sentiment or environmental destruction – but in terms of winning other people over to this position, I see little evidence they’ve thought that through.

Regardless of what you want to say, I am a staunch defender of freedom of speech and I will defend your right to express it in theatre however you wish to do it. But I still despair over the wildly optimistic assertions that it’s somehow going to change the world. I’ve written a long, rambling tips article on soapbox plays before, but that’s more aimed at writing good theatre. Right now, I’m not interested in whether you’re writing good theatre, although there is a considerable overlap between the two. Rather, I’m interesting in how effective it is. Instead of a long list of little tips, here’s a smaller list of big reasons why I believe most political theatre is missing the mark.

The fundamental problem

There is, I believe, one root problem from which most of problems of political theatre arise. Quite simply: It is too easy to produce bad political theatre and get away with it.

Normally, if you put on a play with contrived situations, plausible characters or crappy dialogue, you will eventually discover how bad it is the hard way. I say “eventually” because it’s possible to get a good reaction to a bad play if you’ve got a friendly local audience who are more interested in being supportive than enjoying a play in its own right. But try bringing that to the fringe theatre scene where professional standards are expected, and the fallout will be pretty brutal. On the plus side, this provides a service to audiences of weeding out the bad theatre.

This, I’m afraid to say, is something I don’t believe happens enough in political theatre. If conventional theatre is subject to the Darwinian forces, political plays are perhaps the marsupials of the theatre world, with their flaws protected by lack of competition from the wider world. There’s really only one thing you need to get an appreciative audience, and that’s an issue that the audience already agrees with. Whenever someone raves about a political play (or film) on social media, you can normally find out pretty easily that they already supported the position the play took. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad play – it might be excellent – but it takes away a major incentive to be good. With a thumbs up virtually guaranteed from people more interested in expressing approval of the message than the play itself, why try harder?

Reviewers are better – any review publication worth its salt will instruct reviewers to judge political theatre on how persuasive the message is, and not whether the reviewer agrees with it (and Fringepig lies in wait to disembowel any reviewer caught virtue signalling as a warning to others). Whether this holds in future years is uncertain – I see some reviewers openly talking about the part they can play in fighting Trump as reviewers, but that could easily turn into rewarding performers with extra stars for taking approved anti-Trump stances. Whatever happens, the incentives to meet the approval of like-minded punters is strong and the incentives to be any good are much weaker.

Of course, none of this matters if your sole interest in watching political theatre is validation of views your already hold. But if you’re hoping it has some influence on the world – and I hope that’s what you want if you’re watching it – you should feel very short-changed when a theatre company settles for audience approval.

This is just a general statement of why it’s so easy to produce ineffectual political theatre; in terms of the specific barriers between political theatre and effective politics, I can identify four:

Problem 1: Bad political arguments

My biggest frustration of all. Most of the causes I’ve seen championed on stage have decent arguments to back them up, and yet on far too many occasions, the arguments they choose to use are awful. Okay, I’m a harsh judge here because I am trained from my years on academia to take no claims at face value and scrutinise them for supporting evidence, but often the case presented is so bad that anyone could see there’s something wrong with it. The only people can see realistically buying this rhetoric are people who want to believe in the cause so much that they’ll swallow anything that supports their beliefs, regardless of how absurd it sounds to the rest of the world.

One type of bad argument I particularly witness is the strawman argument. For newcomers to this term, this basically means: 1) Ignore the real arguments made by your opponents; 2) Create a pretend argument based on a misunderstanding of what they said; 3) Defeat the pretend argument; 4) Claim victory over the real argument; and 5) Finish with a victory dance (optional). Quite apart from the obvious moral issue over this kind of misrepresentation, the big problem with this is that it really only appeals to people who want to believe this demonised depiction of your chosen enemy. At best, you might take in some people who don’t know much enough about the issue to realise you’re misleading them, but you can expect to lose a lot of trust when the other side go “we never said that”.

If you’re going to do a political play, the first thing you should be asking yourself – same as actual politicians – is how the other side is likely to respond to this. Are you confident your argument will hold up? Sadly, what I suspect happens in practice is that people ask themselves how much their audience will agree them, or, worse, imagine the response of their absurdly fictitious strawmen opponents (“No! I don’t support winter fuel payments because I HATE pensioners and want them to DIE!!!!” – okay, not quite that but you get the idea.) Fail to address this, and the best you can hope for is entrenching the views of people who already agree with you. And, let’s face it, this practice of playing to the gallery with increasingly extreme and irrational views – both inside and outside the arts, and across the political spectrum – is one of the reasons we’ve ended up in this mess in the first place.

Problem 2: Incomprehensible political arguments

Pretty much all of the other practices I’ve written about so far are at least understandable. I can understand why the temptation to prioritise rapturous applause over appealing to people who don’t yet agree, and I can understand how this can create an environment where weak arguments go unchallenged. The practice I don’t understand is trying to be clever, and yet I’ve seen this happen a lot. So many times a piece of political theatre is presented in such an abstract or convoluted way. I can’t comment on whether or not I agree with the message because I haven’t a clue what the message was supposed to be. I can work out whether the thing they’re talking about is meant to be good or bad, but that’s about it.

A common excuse for incomprehensible plays is that the meaning is quite clear, and you would have understood it if only you’d thought about it more deeply. That is a poor excuse at the best of times – if is your responsibility to make your play understandable, not your audience’s – but it’s a terrible excuse in political theatre. It’s hard enough influencing anyone who’s not already on your side; the last thing you want is to baffle these people over what you’re even saying. No politician gets away with blaming a bad speech on the viewers not paying attention, so why should that excuse work for political theatre?

Of course, the group of people most likely to follow what you’re saying are people who support your position and know your arguments already. Congratulations, you’ve found a new a novel way to change the minds of absolutely no-one. And we’re straight back to the original problem of aiming your political theatre at your existing supporters, at the expense of the people you need to be winning over. Again.

Problem 3: Difficult to reach out to the people you need

Now we get on to the hard problems. At the end of the day, there’s no excuse for relying on poor or incomprehensible argument – anyone can do better than that. But even if you’ve written the most brilliantly persuasive piece of political theatre ever, you’ve still got to get people of different persuasions to actually see it. Not easy. People don’t like having other people’s opinions or morals rammed down their throats, and if it looks like that’s what you’re going to do, they’ll stay away. The sad reality is that the most engaging and persuasive piece you have ever written may be watched by everyone except the people you need to see it.

This problem is the “echo chamber” that keeps getting talked about. This term stokes a lot of artists’ ire, but it has to be taken seriously. For better or worse, political views within the arts world is not as diverse as political views in the country as a whole; but this problem is amplified when an overtly political play acts as a turn-off for anyone not signed up to the cause. I’m seeing signs that some in the arts world are wising up to the problem (not everyone – some are still doubling down with more of the same), but so far I see little sign of a solution. The best effort I’ve seen so far is those groups who encourage their loyal fanbase to bring along friends who wouldn’t normally go to this sort of thing. That will be effective if it works, but my hunch is it’ll work no better than trying to get someone to a political rally – if they’re not interested, dragging them along won’t help.

To be honest, the most engaging political theatre I’ve seen – meaning political theatre that actually gets viewed by people whose minds might be changed – comes from artists that aren’t overtly political. Either it’s a decent play in its own right and the political message is a bonus, or the artists built up a large following outside of political theatre who respect them enough to give something more political a go – or better still, both. You can’t do that if you’re a single-purpose political theatre group. There might be an effective way for single-purpose groups to reach out to the unconverted, but you must be aware that if you wish to go down this route, you are at a substantial disadvantage. Not fair, perhaps, but when has politics ever been fair?

Problem 4: Limited reach of theatre as a whole

I’m not going to name examples of works I reckon aren’t making any different – I don’t want to personalise an article talking about general trends across theatre. Since I’ve been so negative throughout this, I’ll counterbalance this with examples of good political theatre. If by “good” you mean plays that successfully made me think differently on an issue, off-hand I can think of:

  • Boris, World King, that made very good points of how Boris Johnson uses his comedy politician persona to get away with things other politicians wouldn’t get away with.
  • Jordan, which very powerfully challenged the idea that any parent who kills a child is a monster.

I haven’t counted plays which made good points on issue where I already felt that way. If I did, I’d add Invincible and Poles Apart to the list. All of them did everything right: they made good arguments that were easy to understand that reached out to more than just people who already believed those issues. But let’s suppose that you too have done everything right and have a play that wins people over to your way of thinking. Unfortunately, there’s still another problem that there’s no getting round: not that many people watch theatre.

I wish more people went to the theatre, and I support all pushes to achieve this, but at this point in time, that’s the reality of the situation. A popular response to this is to say how many hundreds of thousands of people have tickets for plays like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and yes, if you are as big a megastar as J. K. Rowling, you can use your plays to try influence large numbers of people if you wish. But J. K. Rowling didn’t become a megastar as a single-purpose writer of political theatre: she wrote a series of books that, whilst not totally apolitical, didn’t really say anything more contentious than “racism bad”. Closest example I can think of a writer with widespread influence who rose to prominence through political writing is Ken Loach – but even so, he built a career in film, not theatre.

That’s not to say theatre never makes changes. Vaclav Havel played a big role in bringing down the communist government of Czechoslovakia through his plays, but that was helped in a large part by humourless communist officials unable to take the gentlest ribbing banning his plays – thereby fuelling a resistance movement based around watching plays you weren’t allowed to see. Idiots. However, that was then, and today it’s highly unlikely Donald Trump is going to try to censor your unflattering play about him, however exciting you might find this prospect. No, the cultural war against Trumpian politics was won in theatre a long time ago, and it didn’t stop Trump. The battleground that matters now is the online battle, where it’s a still free-for-all.

Few people are willing to make the trek to a one-hour play to hear other people gives their opinions on they disagree with, but more people are willing to give a 10-minute online video a chance. But even then, it’s hard to persuade someone to listen to a dry 10-minute speech. This is where artists have something to offer to their chosen causes. People will listen more to content that is satirical, humorous, entertaining or even just articulate over something that simply tells you what to think and why. But only if it’s somewhere that’s easy to reach.

Ultimately, I believe this comes down to a choice of what you want to be. If you want to be a theatre maker, you can work your views into your plays if you wish, and one day if you respected enough you can branch out into media that reaches out to more people, but there are times you will have to put artistic merit ahead of political goals. If you want to be as effective a campaigner as possible, you can do political theatre on the side, but you have to realise you can only score minor victories on stage. Most of your efforts will have to go elsewhere.

I’m sorry if sounds like a downbeat assessment of the state of political theatre. I can only base my views on what I’ve seen. I would love to be proven wrong here. It’s a needless mistake to confuse preaching to the converted with winning people over to a cause, and if you know groups who know better than that I’d love to know who. But the fact remains that most fringe performers can only engage with a small and relatively like-minded section of the public. You can pursue theatre-making to the best of your ability. Or you can pursue campaigning to the best of your ability. But you can’t pursue both to the best of your ability at the same time. Like it or not, this is a choice you have to make.

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