Theatre as Protest

In this month’s Creative Protest blog we will be exploring theatre as a form of protest. For years theatre has been a medium by which actors and audiences can explore political messages. Even if we go as far back as Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in 1605, the use of fictional characters allowed the playwright to explore and criticise the ruling of King James I. Then, if we go even further back to the Ancient Greeks, theatre was embedded within their democratic process. However, because theatre can now sit outside of governments, and is its own entity, it can use art as a way to truly explore issues, through comedy, metaphor, personal narrative, or fiction. This blog is going to look at three different forms of theatre and how they can be used as a way to protest. These are; ‘Political Theatre’, ‘Theatre for Democracy’ and ‘Community Theatre’.  

‘Political Theatre’ is an umbrella term used to describe theatre which presents a campaign or outlines an injustice in the hope of making changes to the issues shown. There can often be an issue with political theatre, that those going to watch the performances are those who already agree with the messages being displayed. This is why it is important to think about who the message is aimed at. Political theatre is different from shows which are commercial, because making money is not its main aim. Therefore, the emphasis is not on how many audience members attend, but who is in that audience, and the discussions and thoughts which come from it. An example of a company which uses theatre as a tool for change is Good Chance Theatre. This is a theatre company which established itself in 2015 in the ‘Jungle’ Refugee camp, Calais. One of their best known works is based on their experiences there, called ‘The Jungle’. The Jungle is a show which used theatre to shine a light on the everyday experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. In a world where the media and politics use statistics and a de-humanising narrative against certain groups, theatre can be a powerful tool to show their true narrative and the humans beneath the labels placed on them. As theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht so aptly puts it; “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” 

Another form of theatre as protest is Theatre for Democracy, where communities create performances on issues they are facing, which is presented to key decision makers, with the hope of inspiring change. These are often followed by discussions. This is the power of theatre; its ability to generate discussion. Theatre can often be emotional and even angry, but rarely violent. That is why it is such an empowering tool, as it enables people who feel unheard to use their voices and be listened to. Theatre for Democracy also offers a space for people who feel unheard or do not feel ‘passionate’ about topics, to be given the tools to discuss and understand what is important to them. 

The final form of theatre  to look at is ‘Community Theatre.’ These are events which draw together many different communities and encourage them to make art together. Ann Jellicoe was a theatre practitioner who specialised in community theatre. However, she placed emphasis on Community Theatre not being political; “Politics are divisive. We strongly feel that the humanising effect of our work is far more productive than stirring up political confrontation.” Now, I would disagree here, and urge you to think about the power of a community. People in politics are often trying to segregate and divide communities, therefore in creating a form of theatre which does the opposite of this, it can be a political tool. Take a look at Margret Thatcher, Prime Minister in the 80s, one of her most famous quotes was “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”, therefore creating work which completely goes against this statement can, and perhaps always will be, political.  

There is a power in numbers and a power in community, which is why those in authority find it so scary and try to break it down. This is where community theatre is at its most valuable. The Quaker Advices and Queries is a set of guidelines given to Quakers to help them live their life in accordance with their faith, by offering advice to try and live by. Advices and Queries 27 says “When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community?”. When considering this to create political theatre we can understand that one of the best ways to serve a community, is to contribute to building one. 

Short of creating your own political performances it can be hard to know how best to use the tool of theatre as a form of protest as an individual. So here are some suggestions; firstly engage in political theatre. Attending theatres and watching performances with a political narrative can be as important as creating your own. Not only does this support the artists and show there is an audience they are representing, but it can also be important in your own journey of creating and moulding your political viewpoint. Secondly, theatre can be seen as a melting pot for many different art forms, therefore sharing elements of the work, or being inspired by it to create your own, can be a good way to spread messages further. Thirdly, continuing the discussions and reflections you started in the theatre space can be an excellent way of protesting. It may not seem it, but bringing up new topics and viewpoints with people can be vital in ensuring the success of political theatre. Sometimes, just being inspired to imagine a new perspective and encouraging others to do the same can be enough to spark small changes. These small changes can be one of the most under-rated and powerful forms of protest.  


Call to action: endeavour to find a political theatre event near you, create room in your life to discuss theatre with others and reflect on your own experiences, look into the work of Good Chance Theatre, in particular draw attention to the Journey of Little Amal (a Syrian refugee puppet travelling the world)- there will be more on her in next month’s blog! 


Reading List for Political Theatre:  

  • ‘Woza! Albert’ by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon. This is a satircal play about what would happen if the second coming of Christ happened in Aparteid South Africa. 
  • ‘The Jungle’ by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. ‘The Jungle’ explores the day-to-day life and struggles of residents of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. 
  • ‘I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda’ by Sonja Linden. This play explores the life of a woman as she re-settles in the UK after fleeing the genocide in Rwanda. It is a funny and moving story about the bittersweet relationship between her and a British poet as he tries to help her write her story. 
  • ‘Top Girls’ by Caryl Churchill. Can you have feminism without socialism? That was the question posed by Churchill in this haunting, formally inventive play. ‘Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls explores the dynamics of gender and class in Thatcher’s Britain  
  • The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller. This play follows the story of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists. 
  • ‘Inside Bitch’ by Clean Break Theatre. This is a play about the realities of prison life for women in the UK. It dispels myths from popular TV shows and the media.  
  • 'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes' by Tony Kushner. This exploration of the impact of AIDS on a group of friends from New York in the 1980s is a very raw and emotional look into the impact of the disease on the gay community. Set over two parts it is a must watch/read. It can also be found on National Theatre online. 

Current Political Theatre to Watch: 

  • ‘Owners’ by Caryl Churchill at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London. “Fifty years on from its premiere, Artistic Director Stella Powell-Jones directs this timely revival of Caryl Churchill’s wickedly funny first play about power, property, and possession.” 
  • ‘Kin’ by Gecko Theatre, Tour. “As a young child in 1932, Leah embarked on an epic journey from Yemen to Palestine. Ninety years later her grandson, Gecko’s Artistic Director Amit Lahav, imagines the voyage her family made to escape persecution and build a better life.”
  • ‘Hope’ by Clean Break, London. “Hope is an uplifting story of personal growth and community activism, exploring what hope means for women facing adversity.”
  • National Theatre Streaming service, Online. Here you can access many political shows which are able to be watched online by subscribing to ‘National Theatre at Home’ or renting individual shows. Examples include ‘Angels in America’, ‘Death of England’,  ‘Yerma’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’.National Theatre at Home
  • ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’,  “Yaël Farber directs James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in an elemental production about a world in transformation, the shadows in all of us and one couple’s spine-chilling quest for power. “ Online.BBC iPlayer - The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • ‘Othello’, Online. “Yaël Farber directs James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in an elemental production about a world in transformation, the shadows in all of us and one couple’s spine-chilling quest for power”. BBC iPlayer - Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare - Othello
  • 'Shakespeare Sonnets; A Modern Love Story', on BBC i player. This 45 minute video explores Shakespeare's sonnets through a range of 'modern' love stories, including queer, deaf and online relationships.