When the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests took place all over London, with occupations at Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge, the pictures published in the media were particularly striking because they featured white-faced figures clad in scarlet robes.
Over the course of the protests in locations all over the city, these figures – choreographed by a Bristol street arts company called Invisible Circus – popped up with silent, ritualised performances which entertained protestors and onlookers. But with their ghostly pale faces, they also kept minds focussed on the fact that failure to avert climate catastrophe will be the death of the human race.
Invisible Circus’s contribution to the XR protests is a reminder that theatre and activism have long gone hand in hand. From Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of the Christ of the Saviour in the week before the 2012 Russian presidential elections to Belarus Free Theatre’s underground performances in opposition to the country’s dictatorship, the performing arts have often been closely involved in protest.
When XR performed a ‘die-in’ at the Natural History Museum, it echoed the die-ins of 1980s New York, organised by Act-Up and designed to raise awareness about the AIDs crisis. One of Act-Up’s organisers was Larry Kramer, who went on to write The Normal Heart. The artistic interventions around XR also recall the arts activism that sprung up around Occupy Broadway in 2011.
Theatre as a form of activism – and activism as a form of theatre – has long been with us, from the activities and the performances of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which supported the women’s suffrage movement, through the protest theatre of 1960s and 1970s with companies such as San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread & Puppet, and Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre. In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls protested the lack of female artists in New York galleries.
More recently, protests against the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate’s willingness to accept sponsorship from oil companies has attracted impromptu and eye-catching performances both on the RSC’s stages and in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Performance is a particularly good way of grabbing attention, not just because it attracts media coverage but also because, as Judy Chicago once observed, “performance can be fuelled by rage in a way a painting or a sculpture cannot.”
Unlike its counterpart political theatre, activist-led performance tends to take place out on the streets and often within local communities. Brecht’s theatre was designed to make audiences think about issues and societal problems in a different way. Polish theatre under communism and South African theatre under apartheid did much to raise awareness, mostly to audiences outside those countries, about life under those regimes. Even today, shows such as Emilia, both at the Globe and in the West End, are playing a role in helping to raise consciousness about patriarchal attitudes and feminism.
But political theatre seldom really changes anything, because unlike performances out on the street it can be easily ignored. It takes place behind closed doors, plays to a limited audience made up of those who can afford a ticket and to an often liberal-leaning crowd who agree with the message of the play in the first place. Programming (done months in advance) also means that there is often a lag between real-time events or issues that inspire a play and when it is performed, leading to a lack of urgency.
Caryl Churchill’s 2009 Seven Jewish Children, written swiftly in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, was a rare example of theatre responding to the moment, almost in the moment. But as Bruce Norris once observed to me: “the idea that theatre can change anything is optimistic. The test would be if it didn’t just change what we thought–but what we do. It doesn’t.” Life goes on as normal after the performance has finished.
But activist theatre has the potential to inspire change, whether it is the performances of Invisible Circus with XR, which were seen by hundreds of thousands of people and helped raise debate and discussion around an urgent topic, or the Forum theatre of Augusto Boal who wrote the influential Theatre of the Oppressed. In Forum Theatre, the audience becomes active in finding alternative responses to the scenarios in which the characters find themselves. Boal called them ‘spect-actors’ because they are released from a passive role and empowered to help change the story.
Increasingly, a new generation of theatre-makers see themselves both as artists and activists, including Jess Thom who has been a pioneer of relaxed performances. Groups such as Common Wealth, whose pieces include We’re Still Here, made with workers and former workers at the Port Talbot steelworks in Wales, and No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, co-created with female Muslim boxers, are committed to bringing about social change at grassroots level through participatory projects.
Fun Palaces, an idea originally put forward by Joan Littlewood, recognises and supports the creativity of everyone, not just those who call themselves artists. As with Boal’s work, Fun Palaces breaks down the traditional barriers between the artist and the audience and empowers everybody. There is a short step between coming together to create a Fun Palace and coming together to petition the council or campaigning on a local issue.
What is interesting about the new generation of activist artists is that they often work quietly and without fuss on projects that are long term and bring about change at a grassroots or local level. At Battersea Arts Centre in South London, the organisation no longer describes its mission as “inventing the future of British theatre”. Instead, it sees its role as empowering the local community to claim agency and make the changes they want to see happen, using the same tools that the BAC has used over many years to support the development of theatre.
Does this mean that Battersea Arts Centre is no longer an arts organisation? No. Just as Slung Low, operating out of a deprived area in Leeds, is still a theatre company – although it also runs a community college providing courses that the local people ask for, and which may be in anything from woodworking to astrology.
Ned Glasier of Company Three, a pioneering youth theatre to whom young people are referred to by teachers and social services in the London Borough of Islington, makes a long-term commitment to working with the same young people from the age of 11 into adulthood. Company Three, whose brilliant Brainstorm about the teenage brain was seen at the National Theatre in 2016, not only makes radical contemporary performance with teenagers but sees its mission as being “to change the way that adults and the world see teenagers.”
Good Chance Theatre, which works with refugees in Calais and Paris, and which made the Young Vic and West End hit The Jungle, describes itself as the only theatre company in the world that doesn’t want to exist and sees its primary purpose as being useful and co-creating with those with whom it works.
What is fascinating about this new breed of artist activists is that they do not see themselves as leaders but as listeners who understand that it is locals who are experts in their own community, who do not impose projects but take their cue from what the community says it wants and needs. They see co-creating as being at the very heart of what they do.
This form of arts activism – based on understated, embedded, ground-up participatory arts activity – does not draw attention to itself in the same way as the activities around XR or Tate Modern or the interventions of Pussy Riot do. But this slow form of arts activism can be genuinely transforming. It encourages cultural democracy and brings about lasting political and social change, as it supports people to rediscover their own creativity and fosters capability, motivation and ingenuity. Now that is really radical arts activism.