Last week I was up in Maine work-shopping a new play. Among the artists I was with, the presidential debates and the state of our nation were a frequent subject of discussion. A lot of questions came up. How can you engage people with different opinions in meaningful conversation? How do you change people’s minds? How do you create impactful work? I don’t pretend to have answers to those questions, but I think it’s worth thinking about.
Many of today’s issues are incredibly complex. They are issues that can barely be sufficiently understood in two and a half hours, let alone solved. Experts in these fields may spend their entire life studying them and still not know definitively how to solve them. So when we, as theater artists, try to tackle these issues head-on, I don’t think we’re having the effect we might desire. There is the argument is that these plays can generate change by starting the conversation. But my experience with this – purely as an audience member – is that, when I discuss these issues – where both sides have valid arguments, where the system is failing in multiple ways, where the thing that we thought would fix it has made it worse – I tend to spend some time batting ideas back and forth…and finally drop it after resolving that I don’t know how to fix it. Which means that the needle hasn’t moved much and the problem remains just as frustrating and unfixed as it ever was. And I think my response is a common one. Meaning the impact of a script about issues is questionable.
Furthermore, if we want to effect change, we have to avoid depicting characters who represent the opposing side as villains. The fastest way to a dead-end is to start off by saying “you (and everyone like you) are the problem”. If we start off like that, the only people who might continue to listen to us are the people who were already in agreement with that viewpoint in the first place. At which point we’re not changing any minds or starting any conversations. We’re just stirring the pot and pinning it on a scapegoat. I genuinely understand the appeal of this – ranting is easy and it’s so satisfying in the moment. But there is a difference between being right (or even justified) and being effective. If the objective is to be able to bridge the gap and make legitimate progress, we have to speak in a manner that doesn’t put the other side on the offensive and we have to genuinely listen to their perspective.
Where I think theater can be very effective is with regard to emotionally educating people. Whether we’ll ever reach the point where we can consistently respond in a way that’s in keeping with our best intentions is anyone’s guess. But right now, we’re not there and art can be a powerful tool with regard to navigating emotional territory. The basic tenets of theater revolve around resolving conflict. The pieces of theater I have been most effected by are the ones that effect me emotionally. Persuasion is a long game. You don’t change people’s minds in one massive assault of reason. Most of the time facts will never change people’s opinions. Opinions are emotional. Decisions are emotional. You have to allay to you opponent’s emotional concerns if you want to win them over. This subtle, gradual shift isn’t the kind of sweeping reform that makes headlines. This is the quiet trickle of water that with consistent effort eventually creates the path it desires.
We get just over two hours to connect with our audience and make an impression. Unlike TV and film, which can be rewatched over and over, most audience members will only see any given production once. Just because we can’t force the world to immediately become what we would have it be, doesn’t mean we can’t take action to help it become what we wish it were. Rather than preaching about what’s wrong or who’s at fault, what if we used out time to model the responses we would like to see more of in the world? Can we be an example of how to override your fears? How to be more tolerant? More compassionate? Can we remind people of their humanity? Remind them that there is strength in vulnerability? Can we teach people to be at peace with themselves? We may not know how to fix the fix huge issues of our day. But if we can improve the conversations in our communities, that will not be for nothing.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.