Social Action and the Theatre

This is an academic paper, written for Catherine Doherty’s Directing I class at SUNY New Paltz.

Playwrights have always used theatre as a means of voice their opinions on society, since ancient times (ie. Grecian authors criticizing Athenian politics).  It has been a way to be in complete control of one’s product. A play is the perfect way to showcase growth in ideals and views on a subject, as it allows for the passage of long amounts of ‘play time’ within a few hours of ‘real time’.  Social issues often don’t simply pop up overnight; they are the product of years of repression and conflict. It’s important to have an understanding of these issues when writing about these topics as they can often be sore subjects for groups of people.  It is, however, necessary to talk about them as a collective because they don’t just affect individuals; they affect the community. Talking about these issues is what social action theatre attempts to do. In doing this, social action theatre opens up dialogue between the audience and the actors.  It also provides inspiration for further conversation outside the theater, spreading the message of the play and generating interesting in the topic.

A social action, as defined by the Playwright’s Guild of Canada, takes steps to change the things that are wrong in our society. Social actions introduce new ideas and processes for doing things better in the future.  By this definition, we can infer that social action theatre attempts to achieve these means through theatrical performance.  Pieces take prevalent issues in a society and bring them to light, often using the platform to educate the audience as well. These issues are often widespread and affect masses of people, making the stories widely relatable.  Common social issues to write about are socio-economic inequality, racial tensions, LGBTQIA+ rights, and current politics.

Social action theatre can discuss topics that are misrepresented in mainstream media or prevalent in modern society.  Repression of the LGBTQIA+ community is still a topic that is in headlines multiple times a year and depression rates are climbing. Recognition is an issue in all of the topics previously mentioned: LGBTQIA+, race discussions, financial differences, etc.  It is about wanted people to listen to each side (though using ‘side’ is dangerous because it can create an ‘us versus them’ dynamic) and acknowledge and respect differences. Resilience in the face of suppression is often found in social action theatre because it is meant to inspire hope and change.  The pieces open doors for dialogue for those who might not know who to talk about these topics.

Social action theatre is necessary, as it allows artists a platform to criticize things they feel need to be fixed.  Commentary of social issues encourages change because those who are displeased get to say something. Moving forward from past grievances can be done through social action theatre; people need to be reminded of the past to avoid repeating it but talking and educating can help heal wounds.  It can also be used to open a dialogue beyond theatre doors, affecting people’s views long after they’ve left the playhouse.

Welcome to Equity in Theatre.Social Action | Equity in Theatre. Playwrights Guild of Canada, n.d. Web. 15 May 2017.

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