The Issue- Freedom of Artistic Expression
The Lie- The Free World = The Free Voice
The Solution: Truth, Dialogue, And Paradoxical Dexterity
The challenges to artistic freedom throughout the world are deeply felt, widespread and far more extreme anything one experiences in the West. My work with arts and human rights organizations has exposed me to many artists who are experiencing prison sentences, death threats, and rejection from family and community because of their artistic practice. I have worked directly with an actor in Afghanistan, a playwright in Iran, and a cartoonist from Cameroon, among others, each one either attacked, threatened, imprisoned or tortured for their creative expression.
As Westerners we need to be aware of our artistic liberties. A colleague of mine in Singapore recently asked me quite sincerely, “How long does it take the government to give you official permission to produce a play after you’ve applied for approval?” She could hardly believe that basically anyone can produce basically anything in the United States.
What stops us? Money, politics born from guilt, cultural identity – is what unifies us in the U.S. theatre community not what we proclaim but what we don’t say?
In the west learn early on to limit our responses and say what is wanted, we learn self-censorship. The great improvisation guru Keith Johnstone (1987) wrote that when he was 18 he was reading a book and he started to weep. He was shocked at his own reaction: “I realized that my school had been teaching me not to respond” (p. 17).
The truth is of authentic response essential. Boal (1995), in describing how he understood the pedagogy of fear in oppressed peoples, said, “Truth is therapeutic” (p. 300). Boal believed that if practitioners work theatrically from the premise that all human beings needs to be seen holistically, then both the “tragic passion and clownish love” (p. 300) of humanity are represented and made useful by theater practice. Theater is immediate and evocative and everywhere. The magic of the theater is not an escape, but an invitation to return to the truth with new insight.
My Singaporean friend was not only surprised that there was no Government submission, it was equally shocking to her that National subsidies for the productions we did not have to report were essentially nonexistent.
However wide our external freedoms might range, the subtleties of exclusion, prejudice and censorship are still prevalent, both inside the theatre and outside of the profession. One aspect of our self-inflicted limitations on artistic liberty is the American unwillingness to look deeply at the shadows of our own culture. This blind spot to our own national murkiness affects liberal theatre artists as much as conservative politicians.
Art is subsidized by the rich in the west and so our censorship is insidious and often self imposed. In theatre we censor ourselves in order to please producers who in turn are aiming to please potential audience members, especially the regular subscribers who foot the bills.
This paper outlines some of the censorship encountered in the U.S. Theatre most specifically self censorship and fear that stop westerners from exercising their freedoms that could open up avenues of creative support for colleagues and friends across the globe.
My experience with a play I am working on has been both gorgeous and impossible. My Heart is in the East is a poetic exploration that explores history as a model for peace building. The play is a duet performed by two actors who play several roles, with ten puppets in two settings: Present day conflict zones in the Middle East and 11th Century Cordoba where Muslims and Jews lived for a period of time in relatively peaceful coexistence brought on by poetic cultural exchange in the form of bilingual poetry contests.
Following each performance the audience is invited to engage in a poetry contest and an open conversation about the possibilities for performance and peacebuilding, and history as a model for peace. The resistance I encountered on the road to creation astounded me. I interviewed more than 12 directors many of whom turned away from the material because of the subject matter. I heard a prominent Artistic Director say that he could produce a play about anything but the Jewish/Muslim Israeli/Palestine conflict. No one wants to talk about this. Should I? Audiences responded positively but directors and producers wanted nothing to do with this material. A facilitator at an Off Broadway theatre’ Writer’s Retreat where I was did a workshop of the play said she wouldn’t moderates a discussion about this piece even you I paid her to do so. She said she was too worried about the adversarial discussion that might arise. . I often felt that if I just did the second half about the relatively peaceful poetic exchange in Cordoba and left out the more current challenges of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and the West, the play would be much easier to produce. No one seemed to want to engage with the paradox of present tense as far as the Middle East is concerned. Not only have I experienced challenges due to the controversy of the subject matter (man-Woman, East-West, Muslim-Jew) but also I am experiencing a dialectic within my art form that is shaking the foundation of my knowledge and faith in art.
The poetics of struggle and turmoil is the stuff of great drama. The ongoing trouble people have with communication and expression is part of the fabric of life. As a theater maker engaged in human rights I need to find the challenges as fascinating as they are confounding. I must make a bridge between the rhetoric of my message of a peace and the actuality that the historic tension is still there and there is no way around it. The paradox continues and will continue to exist. I cannot eliminate and disappear the voices of paradox, in fact through the theatrical process I can dive right in.
But there is a vast difference between the ideal of theater (what it can and should be) and the facts of what most theater ends up being. The ideal (or my ideal) is that theatre is supposed to be able to resolve conflict it to reach above it and through it and beyond- it to unify people, to change the world. As an artist, I expect my creative work to reach into the difficult questions and make them beautiful enough to transcend the everyday and inspire extraordinary things in ordinary ways. Theater interrupts daily life with a vibrancy that is meant to illuminate our shortcomings, guide us to our best selves and bring us closer to each other and to the truth.
However, it doesn’t always work that way. I have been betrayed by my own medium more than once. The theater has knocked me quite literally to my knees. We fetishize our art forms and the truth is that theatre like any art is about the process of people making it and it is consistently contested by humanity including individual ideologies, fears and prejudices. Theatre is not disentangled from the world we live and therefore it fails us as an ideal. While the art itself gets us to fall in love, the making of it quite often breaks our hearts. In these current times, extremists from both sides are engaged in acts of violence and injustice. Irreverent cartoonists are massacred in Paris, Black men are murdered in New York, an Artistic Director is fired from a Jewish theatre in Washington D.C. for producing plays that are pro-Palestinian, people are beheaded, thrown off buildings, discrimination prevails in schools, prisons, hospitals and in courtrooms. Are people fearful of retribution? Are people fearful of conversation?
Any post show discussion threatens to invoke tension, anger, fear and other feelings around an issue both ancient and present. But doesn’t American theatre exist for that very reason, to raise issues, and to combat fear and revel in the green zone of free expression at the heart of a free world? Aren’t all of these liberals who are turning away from heated discussion being somewhat hypocritical? My Heart is in The East brings up issues that are challenging but presents two sides and advocates peace. Why are people so afraid of braving discourse? I work hard to make the space safe for any performance or workshop. One of the benefits of doing rituals and training as a drama therapist is that I pay attention to safety and make sure any space where I will be performing or teaching is grounded and secure. I believe that it is very important to do this immediately in conflict zones so that people feel as free as possible to work and express themselves in the given environment. With strength and humorous warmth, I try to combine servant, charismatic and adaptive leadership tools to set participants/ observers at ease while instigating free and open conversation.
All Art is Revolution
Life is always filled with intersections that change the course of one’s road. In my case it was some key conversations with one of my father’s friends that changed mine. Earl Shorris was one of the most influential people in my life. He was a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy. He was sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, and became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which earned him the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Earl wanted to save America with books. In an interview in Harpers Magazine he said:
"I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her. No nation is forever.”
Earl grew up poor in Texas and Mexico, went to The University of Chicago at age 13, and at one point went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency to support his wife and two sons while he wrote dozens of books late at night. Once right after my husband who was a PR executive left me heartbroken with two small children for another woman Earl told me that he never liked my husband because he never trusts anyone in PR. He told me a story that changed my life. This is a recollection of our private talk, in his imagined voice.
Earl: I was an AD man. I was a big guy in a big firm Madison Avenue top of the top, cream of the cream. Silk shirts, handmade ties, bone buttons. Supporting a wife and two sons. Worked hard 6 days a week from 7 am until nearly 10 each night. Wrote novels on Sundays- but on Saturday I worked. I drank the martinis, carried the brief case tooled in Italian leather. My shoes were polished to a mirrored shine. Black guy in the lobby did them every Thursday afternoon. Didn’t matter what I thought, I was a company man. I came up with the bright ideas that silenced boardrooms. Those one of a kind light bulbs that made everyone wince inwardly: why didn’t I think of that? I was such a hot young executive that they handed me one of their biggest account. Nestlé’s. Chocolate powder. Cereal. Baby formula. Multi-millions resting on my brainpower. And then one day we got a report of record numbers of babies dying in Africa. A Nestlé boycott launched on July 7, 1977, was prompted by Nestlé’s "aggressive marketing" of breast milk substitutes that had led to the deaths of thousands of babies who did not have access to clean water with which to mix the powder and who needed the antibodies in their mother's milk as an essential part of their immune system. The head of the board crowded into my office. They begged me to do something, save them. Save Nestle. I agreed to take 74 file folders home and read through the stack of papers over the weekend. I did. Skipped lunch, dinner, just read and drank and read more. I came in Monday morning, the Board was hovering. I invited them into my office and informed them of the good news: I could resolve their PR problem instantly- in just three words - they only had to follow my directions. I could feel them getting erections, leaning forward in their seats, eyes wide, waiting for my three magic words. “ STOP. KILLING. BABIES.” I said. Then I picked up my briefcase and left Madison Avenue. And I’ve never looked back.
Earl’s convictions and strength of character bolstered me through many tough years of balancing theatre and single parenthood. Much later, when I was having a career crisis, we had another impactful conversation. Because of the inherent narcissism of the theatre, I was struggling with the conflict I felt between my need to make plays and my strong desire to be of service to the world. We were at a Chinese restaurant with his wife and my father. I talked non-stop about wanting to leave the theatre to do something more useful. He listened carefully, reminding me of the plays of mine he’s seen and enjoyed, but also giving me guidance about opportunities for activism. We were all outside on the street after dinner, our two families walking in separate directions, when I heard him call my name. I stopped and turned back to him. “Remember Jessica” he shouted down the sidewalk, “All art is revolution.”
All art, especially critical art is not only revolution, it is at risk. Even in the West, where artists are free to creative expressive truth, there are limits to artistic freedom, and prejudices against the validity of artist’s work. The theatre is an especially threatened medium because it has become despite its roots, which were central to the workings of society, theatre has become less accessible, more expensive, less funded, and more rarified. Therefore we fear. We fear funders, we fear audiences, and we are less and less willing to spend our time looking at ourselves and at our culture with wide-open and self-critical eyes.
I was once commissioned by a famous actress known for her liberal politics to write a play about the history of reproductive rights. She wanted the play to feature a court scene and the story of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. I deeply researched the material for the play, sitting in on the hearings for Plan B (the morning after pill) interviewing staff at NAROL, The Center for Reproductive Rights, The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the ACLU. I also went undercover to the other side of the debate posing as the mother of a pregnant 14 year old to Project Rescue, Citizens United for Life, and a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Through this research I realized two things that surprised me and changed some of the content of the play. From the liberal side, I learned that there was a history of racial tension and racism in the reproductive rights movement. What was most shocking to me was that these tensions came from liberal women, most specifically between Caucasians and African Americans. Margaret Sanger herself had been accused of racism when she supported the theory of eugenics (the science of controlling genetics to improve the population) and believed in some compulsory sterilization plans to produce more children “from the fit and less from the unfit” (Sanger...) Sanger was a defender of these ideas for the purpose of protecting the poor and disabled women without access to birth control who were victims of multiple unwanted pregnancies. However good her social intentions were, the effect of her views was to create a rift between Black and White women that has lasted decades. I read the work of Angela Davis who was furious at Margaret Sanger and the liberal white women driving the reproductive rights movement for ignoring the needs and voices of African American women. The actress with whom I was working spoke to her friend Gloria Steinem who had the opposite view and argued for Sanger and against Davis’s claims. Because this seemed like such a rich, ripe issue I put versions of Gloria and Angela into the play, and included the issues of racial tensions between women in the dramatic historical conversation about reproductive rights. I also discovered the unexpected kindness of the Pro-life community. As I presented my case as a soon to be grandmother, the people in these various organizations (whose opinions I personally deplored) I was offered money, housing, diapers, counseling, one man gave me his credit card number so I could take my young daughter out to dinner and “love her up” and assure her that we were ready for the baby. I doubt if any of my dear friends at The Nation would have responded so generously, and even though I disagreed with their methods and their ideas about a woman’s freedom to choose, their warmth somehow touched me. I also put this in the play, de-vilifying the opposition. The actress who commissioned me was so infuriated by my theatrical inclusion of these complexities: the shadows on “our side” and the attributes of theirs, that she walked off the production, taking her funding with her, and has not spoken to me since.
It is also important to be aware of how Western theatre is seen by the population outside the profession. Barrish (1981) describes a prejudice against theatre that permeates Western culture in insidious ways extending even to the level of language.
“ Most epithets derived from the arts are laudatory when applied to life; a landscape can be poetic, a man’s struggle with adversity epic, a woman’s beauty as lyric. In an old movie comedy an affected matron expressed her appreciation of dinner by declaring ‘the fish was a poem’, but with infrequent exceptions, terms borrowed from the theatre: theatrical, melodramatic, stagey, etc., tend to be hostile or belittling.” (p. 1)
Can theatre be fully embraced by the rest of society? Can theatre change the world? I believe that with useful plays, moral imagination, and strong leadership, it can. Person by person, community by community, theatre as an art form can increase communication, mental and physical well being, and self-esteem. Theatre as a means of expression can enhance the peace building and social justice. Because of the expressive and collaborative quality of the art form, theatre allows each person to be seen and embraced by colleagues and audience alike. The act of being seen is in itself a small event of large political importance. As Allan Johnson writes in his book on power and privilege: “Of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people” (Johnson, 2006).
Many artists and peace builders over the ages have believed and claimed that theatre has the power to change the world. The playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted plays to teach. In his Epic theatre he wanted the theatre to be an adult exchange between actors and audience. Not spellbinding or false, not designed to make one feel, but to make one think. He was devoted to the idea of theatre as social transformation. Febres, who was one of leaders and facilitators of the Truth and Reconciliation, commission in Peru, said, “Theatre is an ally to traditional justice.” The same of course could be said of poetry, certainly of spoken word performances. Febres said, “ Art restores meaning in bringing us as responsible human beings face to face with undeniable facts and circumstances” (Febres, 2001). John Paul Lederach, describing the need for a moral imagination to exist inside each of us stated, “If we are to survive as a global community we must understand the imperative nature of giving space and to the moral imagination in all human affairs…. we must imagine beyond what is seen.” As Lederach states (2005), “The moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies (p. 354). This concept of peace can be ethically challenging for those who believe that the pursuit of justice trumps the reach for peace, and that artists entering conflict zones to build peace are encouraging passive acceptance of oppression. According to Nussbaum (2010) the humanities are essential in the movement towards a healthy democracy. Nussbaum claims that it is vital for human beings to approach each other as something other than instruments or obstacles, “...we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle and complicated manner” (p. 11). Though science and technology are important she states that her concern is that creative and literary abilities crucial “...to the creation of a decent world culture capable of constructively addressing the world’s pressing problems are at the risk of getting lost.” (p. 13).
In my opinion, there are three forms of theatre work: Theatre of Process, where the artists rank the experience and expression of art as the highest ambition, Theatre of Product, in which the money drives the art and production is effected by commercialism success defined by fame and wealth, and Theatre of Impact, a theatre practice striving for social change, the central goal being the effect of the work on the community. I believe in the alternative theatre community where social justice plays an important role these three viewpoints and methods cross over constantly. According to Kershaw (1992) mainstream theatre critics and historians have failed to recognize “the nature and extent of the socio-cultural impact of alternative and community theatre” (p. 42).
Resistance to truth and paradox
The process of creating My Heart Is in the East was both enjoyable and arduous. The amount of resistance I encountered on the path of generating the work astonished me. When getting ready to stage the culminating event, I interviewed directors who turned away because of the subject matter. I heard a prominent artistic director say that he could produce a play about anything in the world except the Jewish/Muslim Israeli/Palestine issue. Audiences responded positively to the topic, but directors and producers declined official involvement with the material. A facilitator at a NY playwright’s retreat where I was working on the play said she wouldn’t moderate a discussion about this piece even if I paid her to do so- she was too worried about the adversarial discussion that might arise. While I was writing this dissertation Irreverent cartoonists were massacred in Paris; Black men were murdered in New York; an artistic director was fired from a Jewish theater in Washington D.C. for producing pro-Palestinian plays; discrimination prevailed in schools, prisons, hospitals and courtrooms. Don’t we need to talk and peace and justice? Are people fearful of conversation? Any post-show discussion threatens to evoke tension, anger, fear and other feelings around an issue both ancient and present. But doesn’t American theatre exist for that very reason, to raise issues, and to combat fear and revel in the green zone of free expression at the heart of a free world? At one point in the play the Researcher threatens remove the character that embodies her own inner antagonist, the voice of Controversy.
MIRI: Your lines are cut from now on you are silent.
GRAVE DIGGER: You are marginalizing me.
MIRI: Marginalizing you? I wrote you.
GRAVE DIGGER: What gave you the right to write me?
This question is at the center of much of my work. I try to be rigorous with my self-questioning stance regarding my work as it pertains to other cultures and my own perception.
One of my goals with this recent play My Heart is in the East was to negotiate my own complicated relationship to Israeli- Palestinian (Jewish-Arab) strife with grace. I wanted to overcome these emotional challenges without losing my patience, temper or nerve, in order to offer a vibrant, meaningful and productive series of workshops. This proved to be even more challenging than I could have known.
From My Heart is in the East:
Both sides /You wanna cry for /Both sides /You gonna buy Guns for Both sides/ They expire/ Both sides / They are liars/ Both sides / They have kids / Both Sides /They are kids/ Both Sides/ You watch them bleeding /Both sides /Speeding Towards death / Both sides/ Ain’t no dreaming, just scheming, leaning Towards dark, No spark Of hope to cope with dopes Who sit in offices, point guns at maps: THERE, kill THAT, Spill that, Grill that hill, Bill With your Mohammed, your Moses, your Christ Your Improvised Explosive Device / Far Wide / Both sides/
Discovering the need to go beyond the practice of teaching Lederach’ theory of Paradoxical Curiosity - taking it one step further- teaching myself and others to become comfortable and dexterous with paradox and even eager for it.
If the arts were part of leadership training, how might leaders practice imagining change before taking action? Could dramatized history be a model for peace and justice?
If political leaders were trained in the arts, could that training manifest a more feminine principle of inclusion and hybridity, and a more dexterous relationship to paradox? What if world leaders practiced role playing, placing themselves in another person’s shoes as a creative exercise? What if voice and movement work could free leaders to express themselves more authentically? What if clergy were trained in the arts? What would change through the practice of drama therapy or puppet building in the system and structure of churches and synagogues? If doctors were trained in the arts, and attuned to their own sensory experiences, would patient care be enriched?
And what if artists were trained in leadership? Would the arts be richer in service as a result? These are the questions I will continue to ask myself as I move forward in my life and work as a leader and an artist. I believe that my leadership dreams are reachable. I want to choose small daily acts of healing, education, activism and theater that serve individuals and communities while keeping the big picture in mind – the imagined communities of justice and peace. The grand goal of inspiring others to personal and social change through theatre is reached by a series of small peace(s). As an artist, I don’t aim for global change, but to shift perception, incite new ideas, and move people towards insight and/or action one small act (or play, or workshop, or puppet) at a time.
According to Kegan and Lahey (2009) people are naturally resistant to change, “Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment” (p. 85). In my experience, I see people resisting change because it brings paradox, and they have a hidden, or not –so -hidden competing commitment to maintaining a state of clarity and simplicity. With my practice I move into discomfort to facilitate transformation. I hope to be an encouragement to others who may be contemplating change but fearful of the confusion along the way.
Paradox as a change tool is not an appealing notion for most of us. It is confusing and uncomfortable. Why are people so afraid of being confused and uncomfortable? Is life supposed to be clear-cut and uncomplicated? The more we know about each other’s “nations,” the more paradox arises. Conversely new knowledge information and encourages empathy but the details of cultural opposition can be contradictory. Sinclair (2007) stated“ Education is the practice of freedom” (p. 35). Education may free us from ignorance, but does it free us from confusion? The more scholars engage with ethnography, and dig deeply to hear the truth in the stories of diverse life, the more possibility there is for incongruity to arise. This is why dialogue becomes a powerful tool towards understanding. Peace and justice become possible when “reinforced through discourse and discursive relationships“ (p. 166). Educating ourselves does not always mean we will be offered an uncomplicated direction. Sometimes the unveiling of actuality, both current and historical, reveals not a clear set of facts but a tangle of paradoxical truths, which makes honest human interaction all the more necessary.
Whether or not theatre can effect change is not only a question that rests on the opinions of mainstream critics, the question of change reaches more deeply into the study of human nature itself. Resistance and immunity to change can be a product of the human mind as much as result of social oppression. The socialized mind which influences how one receives information, brings a person into hyper consciousness of his/her surroundings, in my mind weakening the thinker into a follower mentality, the self authorizing mind according to Kegan and Lahey (2009) has the beginnings of leadership and self actualization. The self-transforming mind not only envisions change but also gets the job done.
Inspired by Earl Shorris and many other activists engaging the world through art and literature, it is my objective to continue to research ways to fight for artistic freedom both locally and globally. A world without art is a world intelligence, depth, color or compassion. It is also my desire to see theatre as a craft, as healing agent, an educator and vehicle for social change thrive and continue to enrich the world by telling truths through art and embracing paradox as we go.
One way I have tried to tell and inspire honest stories is with puppet building, which has become both a performative tool and a therapeutic device for dealing with trauma in the field. The first thing you do is make the puppet's brain. A secret or an image or a memory or a poem, becomes the brain. Newspaper and masking tape form the head around it - a face emerges, and the stories come.
The other way I combat self-censorship is to keep taking the risk to say the things I need to say, that I feel may be useful for my audiences to hear and talk about. I try, despite my fears, to continue to ask hard questions both of my audiences and myself. From: My Heart is in the East:
MIRI: And so here ends our strange love story,
ABU: Without solution, without glory.
MIRI: Deep at sea in a school of sharks Instead of answers, more question marks.
ABU: Man versus woman, Arab versus Jew, East versus West, Red versus Blue.
MIRI: There are some who fight to see rays of light/ In this dark cold world where it’s mostly night.
ABU: A distant glint in their upturned eyes, Look! A slight bright gash in the shadowed skies.
MIRI: And through the breach from either side/ Fly two flocks of birds with wings spread wide.
ABU: One covey predator, one flight prey / There will be blood by end of day.
ABU AND MIRI: Or
MIRI: The field on which these birds alight
ABU: Won’t be the scene of a gory fight.
MIRI: Perhaps the Gods that favor geese
ABU: Will prevail on these birds for peace.
MIRI: Perhaps the hound won’t bite the fox
ABU: And we’ll make friends with paradox.
MIRI: Perhaps the lamb curls up with lion
ABU: And Mecca fastens hands with Zion?
ABU AND MIRI: But
MIRI: It’s your decision, your choice, dear friends: How will this story reach its end? You must act fast to choose which track and solve the riddle before the lights go black:
In our vast lost choir what deeds win through? And faced with war...
ABU AND MIRI: What will YOU do?
Barish, J. (1981). The anti-theatrical prejudice, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Boal, A. (1995). The rainbow of desire. New York, NY: Routledge.
Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power and difference, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Johnstone, K (1979) Imrpo, New York: Routledge
Kegan, R., & Lahey L. L. (2009), Immunity to change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Shorris, E. (2011). American Vespers: The ebbing of the body politic. New York, NY: Harper's Magazine
Sinclair, A. (2007). Leadership for the disillusioned, Australia: Allen & Unwin.