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Mediacracy

From left to right: Samantha Simone (obscured), Reese Scott, Zishan Ugurlu, Britta Kuhn, Jacqueline Nwabueze, Ashlee Morel, Sophia Skiles, Ellen Bryan, Amanda Boekelheide, Christina Gallego, Domonique Jarrett, Akdeniz Rysmendieva.
Left to right-Samantha Simone (obscured), Reese Scott, Zishan Ugurlu, Britta Kuhn, Jacqueline Nwabueze, Ashlee Morel, Sophia Skiles, Ellen Bryan, Amanda Boekelheide, Christina Gallego, Domonique Jarrett, Akdeniz Rysmendieva. Photo Credit-Luissa Chekowsky.

This piece is part of a new Lark blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called​ 
"Stages of Resistance." This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and 
aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.


 

One of the reasons, possibly, for theater to continue to exist in our technological age is a kind of alternative public information system that is able partially to humanize the denatured results of our vaunted and costly objectivity. Is it possible to restore a more sophisticated level of outrage and empathy to the history of our own lifetimes? Television permits you to be a spectator, but theater makes you a participant. In the process, might we be encouraged to accept some of the responsibility for this history and for these lifetimes?"
— Peter Sellars

When I realized Donald Trump had been elected president, like many Americans I began to wonder what had gone wrong. But more importantly, I started to seek creative and productive ways to counter the intolerance and ignorance Trump’s campaign had thrived on and his presidency seemed destined to embrace. I had spent a great deal of time on social media in the months leading up to the election, sharing posts and making short and long comments regarding the news and events of the campaign. If nothing else, the election made me realize that particular kind of action was not effective. Whether I was in a bubble or others were, there was a clear disconnect between my attempts to communicate, debate, discuss, and actually create any kind of positive change.

As a theater writer, director, and teacher, much of my self-critique came as questioning the role of media and the arts. So, I started to look for a way to create a piece that spoke to those issues.

The most recent presidential campaign and election have demonstrated the importance of journalism and media that exist outside the corporate, profit-driven structures of major media outlets. The mainstream media, in its desire for viewers and the advertising dollars they bring with them, generated tremendously disproportionate attention to personalities and issues that are not the most significant of our times, and that continually distract from the necessities of policy-making, the purpose and function of government.  As Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS said in early 2016, "I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

Theater is now marginalized and seen by the mainstream as unpopular and ineffective.  Even theater that has made significant political impact, like Hamilton, is dismissed by many as an anomaly for the minority, or for minorities. It is primarily through our smartphones and the televisual narratives and social media they sell us that we as a culture imagine that our discourse matters.

So my particular brand of resistance was to test that relationship. The November 23, 2016 New York Times interview with Donald Trump was an extraordinary piece that revealed much about our media and its relationship to the new president. Trump had invited the Times to Trump Tower soon after the election, and in the interview calls the newspaper “special” but complains about their negative coverage of him. The reporters and editors are cordial but cautious throughout, and ask many multipart questions with few follow-ups. This was before he got to calling them “the enemy” after taking office, of course. The reading of the transcript of that interview, which I called “Mediacracy,” was meant to illuminate the conflicts in the ways that media works in our contemporary political climate and the ways that it limits the subjects and perspectives of our discourse.

The text was split up amongst 12 female and ethnically diverse performers – it was sometimes read by an individual, sometimes by a small group of three or four, and then occasionally by all 12 in unison. There was no attempt at vocal mimicry, and the chorus members spoke the text clearly and plainly, without much emotional or psychological affect. This created the indelible effect of taking Trump’s voice away from him and allowing us to hear his words differently. But it also did the same with the voices of the reporters and editors, complicating the easy differentiation of identity and character and making clear that both the form (the media context) and content (Trump’s rhetoric) were under the critical microscope for the spectators.

But in large part because the voices were female and represented a diversity of ethnicities, there was also a sense of resistance to the text itself, especially when speaking Trump’s words from the interview. These were clearly not their voices, but the embodiment of other voices, voices that have been heard and are being heard, being embodied by those who are now even further from being heard and heeded with a Trump administration. But who are not silent and will not be silent, and will not be caught up in another’s narrative: the reading ended with all of the women standing and coming forward, then throwing their texts to the ground as the lights went out.

As Sellars suggests in his quote above, theater might serve as a truly alternative news source in a digital age specifically because it is unmediated. It demands the shared breath, attention, and presence that our political discourse currently lacks. By taking the words of the powerful and putting them into the voices of those who have been and are being marginalized, we listen differently and gain perspective on our language, our rhetoric, and our hierarchies. It also creates empathy through the most basic of gestures – the attempt to voice and embody the other, whomever that other may be. Perhaps even when that other is Donald Trump.

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