A Deeper Focus


Staging Resistance the Deep Ecology Way – A Radical Departure

This article was originally published on The Lark‘s blog as part of the Stages of Resistance salon. Curated by Caridad Svich, the series welcomes reflections on making work for live performance in resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights or censor freedom of expression.

Joshua trees in the mojave deser, silhouetted against a purple night sky.

Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called “Stages of Resistance.” The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon 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!

The question of how do we practice resistance—especially resistance via the arts—took me down a seemingly odd pathway, Deep Ecology, but it’s one I know can lead to the work we need to do. Why not think in unusual terms these days anyway? There has never been a better time to merge a life in art with a life as a political citizen. For theater to have an impact now, we need to make a radical change, a retooling of how we view making art. We need to alter our perspective at nearly every point on the art-making scale:  purpose, form, venue.

Of course, if we go back to the origins of theater, there’s no shift at all: From its beginnings, Western theater has gone hand in hand with political commentary—and, I could argue, resistance. Sophocles, after all, was a general who led armies and used his plays to deliver messages about abuses of power and the consequences of war. Plus, theater was performed outdoors in a place that was, yes, recognized as a theater then, but was a space unlike most nonprofit or commercial theaters today.

Lofty civic origins aside, theater for the last hundred years or so has largely retreated to the interior, both in terms of space and stories. I’m not suggesting we banish that style of theater—there is plenty of room for multiple forms and presentations in all art. But for optimum impact as a means of resistance, are reality-based plays performed in a brick-and- mortar theater supported by corporate sponsors the right choice? Maybe, maybe not. Will this create the needed paradigm shift? No. I don’t think so.

I propose we borrow from the Deep Ecology movement to achieve a radical departure from what typical American theater has become, and that we head into new territory so our ancient art form can enchant, agitate, transport, disturb, and inspire whole new audiences.

My use of the phrase Deep Ecology doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that all plays from here on after be about the environment, by the way. Far from it. I’m simply suggesting using Deep Ecology as a model because it’s possible to fit almost any form of art and resistance into this way of thinking. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess founded the Deep Ecology movement to be an inclusive way of viewing the entire world. It emphasizes interconnectivity and goes beyond earth science to embrace politics, economics, public policy, sociology. Deep Ecology is, above all, a way of operating ethically and in a way that invites everyone to the table.

Why is this important? Well, even though we in the theater pride ourselves on being a part of a larger arts “family,” we still generally function using a top-down authoritarian structure. We’ve borrowed our family’s operating system from business rather than less conventional fields. In the current structure, artists are dependents; administrators perform the parent role; and a host of loyal retainers take on assorted tasks.

This structure allows a few people at the top to grant or deny access to everyone below, rather than being a true collaboration. It’s important to remember that one way to censor a voice or limit freedom of expression is to control the gate to the funding, the large venues, the audience. Some of our best regional theaters are complicit. Grant money and corporate sponsors—there’s a need to please them to keep the funding rolling. And that means making certain choices in terms of content and personnel.

Sociologists have done studies of styles of “leadership,” and the authoritarian model is one that often uses tactics of fear and humiliation. (Sound familiar? Think of the way the 45th president campaigned and now “governs”).   But how healthy is the authoritarian model for the arts? Why should fear direct a choice made by a theater administrator, or humiliation enter into a critique of the work? How does this promote creativity and risk-taking for artists? Where is this taking us? And is this truly the function of art?

So, I say let’s go in a totally different and, in fact, offbeat direction: Let’s use Deep Ecology as our guide. This means throwing out some conventions we’ve become accustomed to; theater may not look like itself in some instances. But it will still be theater. It also means making adjustments to scale—and even to expectations.

The tenets of Deep Ecology fit very nicely with art that has purpose. Deep Ecology is a movement that takes the long view and looks beyond a current crisis or the current generation; instead it takes on responsibility for the future. It is devoted to interconnectivity, complexity, diversity, and inclusion—at both the micro and macro level, i.e., inclusion that considers not only all genders, races, classes, nations, and economic statuses, but also a larger form of inclusion, going beyond just the anthropocentric and taking into account all living beings. Arne Naess once said in an interview: “Personally, I think that to maximize self-realization—and I don’t mean self as ego but self in a broader sense—we need maximum diversity and maximum symbiosis.” What a great goal for art geared for resistance.

An added benefit is that Deep Ecology comes with an eight-point ethical philosophy. Ethics! And after laying out a way of operating that is fair and inclusive in items one through seven, point number eight states: “Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.”

An obligation. To implement the necessary changes. That, to me, is the guiding principal for living in the arts and staging resistance. And one additional bonus: Arne Naess believed political actions should be inspiring. They should not humiliate or elicit fear, but rather, they should be joyful. Something that creates awe and offers people a chance to love an idea, a place, a culture, and therefore want to be involved and take action.

So, to implement necessary changes and to create a joyful action we can’t do things the old way. And we may have to do things on our own. Here is a check list of a few specifics I’ve come up with that offer a different perspective for making theater. With any luck, these will help elicit a radical departure from some unhealthy ways of creating:

1.  Look for new partners.

Do all plays have to be produced by conventional theaters? Perhaps it’s possible that nonprofit organizations dedicated to specific causes can become presenters of theatrical work. Maybe a domestic violence survivors center could be a partner in getting an evening of short plays out to the public—and even generating a new type of audience? Maybe a refugee organization can present a new play to people newly arrived in this country? Who knows? These new partners might even be sources of funding.

2.  Stay fast and loose. Go underground. Be covert.

Interconnected with new partners are new venues. Simple math: If you don’t have a brick and mortar space, then you don’t have a monthly mortgage to worry about. So, you can just raise enough money for each project, and spend money only when you’re going forward with a show. You can keep your operations stripped down and ready to be mobile. In fact, you don’t need a conventional venue at all. Look to nontraditional performance spaces rather than waiting for theaters to come calling. There are odd and interesting places in almost every city. There are community centers and meeting halls, parks, lobbies, gyms, and garages. Depending on the play, you can hitch your wagon to an organization that can trade space for exposure. You can create a piece that travels, that folds up into a little box and will go on the road. Or one that is performed over and over on a street corner. Or a pop-up that entertains people heading into a meeting or a grocery store. That’s an audience too.

3.  Take on the impossible stories.

Let’s stop retelling the same old tales of middle-class love and venture further afield. Let’s be inclusive and take on the stories that are untold, the voices that are unheard, and keep demanding these become valued. The default position—the clap-yourself-on-the-back affluent white male protagonist play about a topic we all agree on—has become a bit creaky. There’s a whole world out there full of people who are just waiting to see their stories onstage. Some of them are harder to understand, but they’re not hard to find. The other great thing about impossible and/or untold stories is that they often inspire new forms of telling. That’s a bonus. Plus, with technology now available at our fingertips, lights and sound can emanate from a smart phone. Now even an offbeat portable performance can have production values.

4.  Re-invent what success means. 

Can we move away from the financial as the sole marker of success? I’m not suggesting artists shouldn’t be paid, nor am I suggesting we should not honor achievements. I’m simply saying: Is the amount of money an artist generates the only guide to their worth? Does a play have to be at a huge regional theater to be considered valuable and a winner? Can a smaller achievement also be an indicator of great success?

5.  Stop waiting.

I can speak for playwrights. We can get passive. We can get stubborn. We look at a piece we’ve created for the benefit of an anti-fracking campaign being performed on the back of a truck or at a church hall and we think, ‘oh, this isn’t really theater.’ I imagine other theater artists feel this way sometimes too. I admit, I also get dazzled by the sound and lights and fancy projections in a big theater. BUT: Theater isn’t just one form, one style, one size. Any time we bring text, movement, images to a crowd, we’ve got a show. If it’s too hard or too scary to do alone, call a few friends.

All of this may require more imagination and more dedication. And then, try as we might to embrace a more local, perhaps smaller way of doing things, we can’t help but ask, is the impact only going to be at the grassroots level? Will this affect only a few people? I ask myself this question over and over again too, especially after I’ve seen a huge show with fabulous special effects. But the real question isn’t ‘is this only going to have impact at the grassroots level,’ but, ‘is that bad?’ What’s wrong with the grassroots level? Don’t bigger movements grow from small starts? Doesn’t having impact on even one person matter?

Besides: Not that we have to disregard the power of one, but I guarantee that the audience will be larger than that anyway. And the impact will be much more intense than anyone can realize. Years later, someone who saw resistance on stage will be at a ballot box. Or in a classroom. Or on another stage, making their presence known.

Deep Ecology, in its belief in inclusivity and interconnectivity and responsibility, offers a guide to a way of operating in the world that is purposeful and meaningful. We can stage resistance at so many levels if we start to think in different ways. None of this is easy. And I am going to confess I don’t think I can do theater this way 100 percent of the time. Nor do I have to. No one person has to stick with any one style or process or venue. (Perhaps “keep them guessing” is something that should also be added to my checklist). But we have an obligation to get out there and try to “implement the necessary changes.”

To keep strong, I turn to the advice of Gary Snyder, a poet who has always loved the principles of Deep Ecology.  In the last lines of his poem, “For the Children,” he says:*

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

*”For the Children” by Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island. © New Directions, 1974.

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