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Shameless Self Promotion: Theater of Witness

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My research has mostly revolved around virtual witnessing, but after attending a recent show at Amnesty International headquarters in London I decided to look into another kind of witnessing. I was a “drama geek” through most of middle school and high school and then got involved in Shakespeare acting in college while studying International Relations almost solely as a social activity. So I’m looking at an old interest in a completely new way!

Live theater is a thriving business in big cities like London and New York, and has a long history of political involvement in places like Russia, so it really should be no surprise when societies start looking toward the theater to tell difficult stories and inspire change.

That’s part of the premise of my new article at openGlobalRights. Here’s an excerpt:

Theater is also a highly adaptable medium, able to be molded over and over according to the vision of its social and cultural location. How many places in time and throughout the world have versions of Romeo and Juliet been produced? What if the two leads were not male and female, but male and male? What if one was a black African and the other white and British? What if one was Hindu and the other Muslim? The story remains the same and yet the meaning is given new life. Old texts adapted and applied to human rights issues can help us understand the universality and timelessness of struggle.

This was the vision for Queens of Syria, which mixed Euripides’ 410BC text of The Trojan Women with the real-life stories of women refugees from Syria. The UK based charity Developing Artists, which seeks to support the arts in post-conflict nations, worked with a drama therapy group, as well as British and Syrian directors, to translate the ancient play into Arabic while journalists added archival footage that played on a screen above the women. Queens of Syria sold out in a number of venues throughout its three-week UK tour in 2016 and was featured in The Guardian, Financial Times, and on the BBC. Audiences were given supplemental materials about the conflict and the actors in their programs and encouraged to learn more about the refugee crisis.

I attended the show already knowing a fair amount about the subject, and the play itself was very light on context, focusing instead on emotion. While I may not have learned anything new, what I felt while watching and being in the presence of these women who were engaging in a creative form of post-memory work was certainly an arresting experience. To do so in the presence of others, who laugh when you laugh and who applaud when you applaud, creates a form of consensus. The audience members certainly already had empathy for the actors, which is why they bought the tickets, but the experience created a new and intimate connection.

Thanks for checking it out. Maybe share some of your experiences with live theater in the comments?

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  • maurinsky

    I used to do community theater – it was a joyful time in my life, but I peaked one year by doing 5 different shows, and that kind of was the end of it all for me. I think about going back to it every now and again, but all that rehearsal time….

    My best story is that I caught on fire on stage once, and not only did I calmly put the fire out, no one in the audience noticed, nor did anyone else I was on stage with.

  • Murc

    What if one was a black African and the other white and British? What if one was Hindu and the other Muslim?

    I’m unsure this can work in the context of Romeo and Juliet as anything other than “giving actors who aren’t white a chance to play some of Shakespeares greatest roles.” That’s not nothing, but if you want it to have teeth it sounds more like the kind of adaptation you’d make to Othello.

    Part of the point of Romeo and Juliet is that both the Capulets and the Montagues are “alike in dignity,” by which is meant that they occupy equivalent social status and wield equivalent amounts of power and have roughly equivalent amounts of respect. That’s because the story is structured around the blinkered idiocy and destructiveness of old fools and their pointless, literally contentless vendettas. You’ll notice that the play itself never explains why the Capulets and Montagues are fighting, because if it never explains that the audience
    can’t take sides.

    It’s not about class and un-equivalent power dynamics. (When Shakespeare wanted to write about class and unequal power dynamics he usually made it real clear he was doing that.) So if you make them as completely equivalent as possible, that removes it as an issue for the audience.

    Introducing those class, power, and race elements into the story without changing the text of the story isn’t going to work, I think, because the story doesn’t address those elements. At all. It isn’t about that. If you code Romeo as a black African and code Juliet white and British, you’re mostly just providing window dressing rather than making an actual statement about racism except inasmuch as you’ve cast a person of color in a traditionally white role. Because the play was written about two white Venetians of nearly equal social status and doesn’t actually, you know, address their race.

    • That wouldn’t stop someone from creating a derivative work of R+J, and I’m 100% sure that has happened multiple times over.

      • Murc

        Oh, yes, of course, of course.

      • reattmore

        Why, you could have the two lovers be members of rival NYC west side street gangs!

    • altofront

      Part of the point of Romeo and Juliet is that both the Capulets and the Montagues are “alike in dignity,” by which is meant that they occupy equivalent social status and wield equivalent amounts of power and have roughly equivalent amounts of respect.

      This is exactly right, and it’s one fundamental problem of expressly political adaptations of R&J, which are legion (it is certainly the most adapted of Shakespeare’s plays). The most famous of such adaptations is probably the 1994 collaboration between the Khan Theater and the El-Qasaba Theater in Jerusalem, with a Palestinian Romeo and an Israeli Juliet. This was done with the best of intentions, in the face of aggressive resistance from various elements of both Israeli and Palestinian society, but although the production generally garnered lavish praise (especially elsewhere), better critics pointed to its inability to interrogate the assymetrical political realities of divided/occupied Jerusalem.

      In a broader sense, one might question how politically useful it is to use Shakespeare like this, where Romeo and Juliet is refashioned into a kind of mythic narrative telling universal truths about humanity.

      The Trojan Women is a more interesting play to work with, in part because it’s less well known (and thus less mythic) and in part because the intent of the original play is to humanize the Other. (Of course, it’s hardly a new thing to adapt it to contemporary political contexts: see, for a prominent example, Sartre’s 1965 adaptation, which was all about French imperialism.)

    • reattmore

      the play was written about two white Venetians of nearly equal social status

      Veronese, not Venetians–Venice conquered Verona in Shakespeare’s time, but there is none of that in the play.

      • Murc

        You are correct to point this out!

  • MariedeGournay

    I do believe that’s the first time I’ve seen that .gif used with the scene’s context taken into account. I’m tickled.

  • applecor

    Not really on topic, but I am struck by the phrase “drama geek” in the OP. The first time I heard this expression (from a woman in her 20s who was describing herself) I thought “Wow – isn’t “geek” either (a) a pejorative meaning an anti-social person obsessed with a topic that “normal” people would not care about or (b) a techie “owning” what others would think of as a personality flaw? Has it now been diluted so much that someone engaged in a very social activity like drama would self-describe as a “geek”?” Can you be interested in drama without being a geek? If so, how interested do you have to be before becoming a geek?

    • dhudson2728

      The word “geek” hasn’t had a pejorative or even particularly negative context for decades. By the early 90s at latest geeks had started using that term self-descriptively, and by the early 2010s “geek” was no longer an effective insult (because most geeks self-identify as geeks).
      While it does still have some connotation that a person’s interest in whatever geekdom is a tad over the top, it essentially just means “devoted fan”. And there are geeks of all kinds, band geeks, theater geeks, anime geeks, movie geeks, even sports stats geeks.

      Of course, that’s just on the internet, I have no idea what slang kids are using among themselves these days.

      • applecor

        Thanks. I’ll try to keep up.

  • Lit3Bolt

    But will it play in Peoria?

  • Ramon A. Clef
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