Theatre Is All About People

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”- Oscar Wilde

In the “Theater of Politics”, people are everything. Like live Theater, every political production is made possible by a team of technical engineers, creative designers, directors, and actors, and the pivotal component that constitutes Theater whether it be dramatic or political — the audience. In the dawn of the 2020 presidential election and in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, it was important to think critically and with compassion. To act in the best interest of one person or one group is usually not what benefits the public on a larger scale especially today’s social, political and economic climate. As such, one important issue rose above the rest when the debates began, immigration.

On the modern political stage, immigration was a signature issue for the 45th President of the United States, and a point of contention between his administration and the American audience. One of the most notable policies that administration enacted was their zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossings in 2018 that displaced countless minors from their parents and caregivers. Although this policy was eventually revoked on the insistence of Republicans, Democrats, prominent world leaders and most importantly, the American people, the damage was done. Immigration has reduced significantly and as Forbes put it, this is about more than just the act of separating families. This is about the damage these policies cause to the American economy. These are complex issues and they can be incredibly distressing to read about so most people simply avoid them.

This is where the dramatic arts come in. It is our responsibility as members of the performing arts community to communicate one person’s truth to the other. Distressing events occur and leave a print on the collective memory of mankind. Theatre comes along and helps us understand why those events are distressing. Theatre humanises events by placing people, dialogues and situations at the heart of the discussion and allows us to imagine what we might do when placed in similar circumstances.

As an example, let’s consider the story of María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American playwright of the 20th Century who put her immigration experience to the United States on the table. Maria utilised her voice to speak for countless Cuban voices that would have remained misunderstood had it not been for her portrayal of their struggles, challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs in over 30 plays. In her autobiographical play “Letters from Cuba”, she speaks of the heartbreak of siblings being divided by borders. The play is set in both New York and Cuba and by showing Cuba to be on the terrace of the apartment, demonstrate the differences in freedom, in separation and sense of home. Fornés attempts the impossible in trying to give us some answers. The characters in Cuba are often asked why they do not leave or visit and the answer is every bit as complex as we would expect it to be; “For some it’s harder to leave… separating ourselves from what we know… and [what is] close to our hearts”. In an interview with the New York Times, Fornés reflects on her brother’s decision to stay back in Cuba stating that it is an issue of attachment and a love like no other. Loving is a place, she says, is very different from loving people or pets, it is a hard, beautiful love. She leaves it up to the audience to understand the risks involved in attempting to leave a country under a difficult regime.

As one watches more of the play, one comes to realise that we are not so different at all. Citizens, immigrants, refugees, settlers, these are all labels that can change at any moment but people are not labels. People are real, they have desires and longings which Fornés brings to the fore through the touching dialogues employed by the characters. It is in the contemplation of plays such as these that one develops a sensitivity and alternate perspective to policies that drive political careers. We all got through a tense and deeply divided November’20 but it is never too late to hear some of the voices that theatre brings to you so you can approach the next one with the whispers of those at stake.

Shelby Pickelny for Ripple Effect Artists. This article was contributed to the Ripple Effect blog by Shelby Pickelny in October 2020 in her position as an Intern with Ripple Effect Artists Inc. Ripple Effect Artists is committed to giving artists their dues and as such, this article has been retained under our new Editorial standards, albeit with updates.

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Ripple Talk is a Blog by Ripple Effect Artists, a Not For Profit that addresses social change through theatre