Ideas

Theatre and film are inherently political, say art critics

The idea that theatre exists to show us the underlying meaning of our actions, while at the same time shaping our society, goes back to ancient times. In this episode of IDEAS, a discussion from the Stratford Festival with three New York Times journalists about the way theatre is political and how it reflects present day.

From the Stratford Festival, NYTimes journalists discuss how the audience plays a role in the politics of art

Andrew Iles plays Jeremy in the 2020 Stratford Festival production of Hamlet-911. The production is not out but serves as an example of how William Shakespeare can be interpreted in a modern context. (Creative Direction by Punch & Judy Inc. Photography by David Cooper )
Listen to the full episode53:59

Dictators and autocrats on all sides of the political spectrum have always kept a close eye on what artists do and say. 

Oligarchs know that art is dangerous. Art is subversive and anything that makes people think, or question, is a threat to those who wield power.

Art is political. In a discussion recorded at the Stratford Festival last year, three New York Times journalists discuss the politics of theatre — the relationship between what's on the stage, and what's going on in the lives and the world of the people in the audience.

"What makes theatre inherently political is that it's an art of conversation and it's an art of being in a room watching people talk to each other and work issues out," says Scott Heller, theatre editor of the New York Times.

"I think that that's why, unlike digital forms or other visual art forms, there's something small p-political about being involved in watching theatre that leads you to think big P- politically ... the art of theatre is the art of people negotiating and that immediately leads to larger ways to think about politics."

Theatre is at its best when it can both reflect back what is happening in the world and also lead the audience to find a common ground in understanding each other and agreeing on common societal values, says Heller.

Representation in film

The history of theatre suggests that this has pretty much always been the case. The very oldest written plays we have come from ancient Greece nd those plays evoke similar experiences to a play written yesterday: we see characters much like ourselves, onstage, working out personal dilemmas and family feuds, while larger social struggles of the times loom in the background.

All of which means that we don't always need new plays to understand the present we find ourselves in. Old plays frequently give us unnerving insights into ourselves today, and the modern society we live in. Turns out, people haven't changed much over the millennia — and nor has human society.

The "kissing-cousin" as it were, of theatre is of course film — a similar story-and-audience relationship being played out, but with some quite profound differences.

Cara Buckley covers film for the New York Times — a medium that puts a premium on new production, and on the relevance of what people see to their own lives.

"What happens on that screen is so important for the audience in terms of how they see themselves and how they relate," Buckley explains.

" I remember...seeing a film with Meryl Streep about the suffragettes, and I'd never seen so many women on screen doing smart political things that I was kind of taken aback."

As a woman, Buckley says that experience speaks to the need for representation of different voices which she says is political. She adds the effect on the audience is profound when you see yourself reflected back to you by your own culture.

For both theatre and film, that question of the audience seeing themselves reflected on the stage or screen has become hugely important; in a 'popular' art form. The politics demands that the diversity of society needs to be represented in what we see.

"The response theatre had for many years was to try to speak to everyone at once. And that works when you have a big musical of a certain type, but otherwise it doesn't work," Jesse Green remarks. 

The co-chief theater critic for The New York Times says theatre now is heading in a different direction, one he adds is a good thing.

"Theatre makers are understanding the power of what the other art forms have done, fractionalising and speaking to smaller groups — whether to encourage them in something they already know or whether to show them something that they thought they knew but actually didn't."
 

Guests in this episode:

Cara Buckley is a culture reporter for the New York Times who covers bias and equity issues in Hollywood.  Previously, she worked as the Carpetbagger columnist, covering the campaigns and controversies of the film awards season. She has been a Metro reporter, covered the Iraq war and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.  Born in Dublin, she grew up in Ireland and Canada, and lives in Brooklyn.

Scott Heller is the theater editor of The New York Times. He joined The Times in 2010 from The Boston Globe, where he had served as arts editor. Mr. Heller, a Brooklyn native, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he also earned an M.A. in American Studies.

Jesse Green is the co-chief theater critic for The New York Times. From 2013 to 2017 he was the theater critic for New York magazine, where he had also been a contributing editor, writing long-form features, since 2008. Articles he has written for these and many other publications have been recognized with nominations and prizes from the National Magazine Awards and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, among others.


* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. It was recorded in 2019 in Stratford by Melissa Renaud. Special thanks to Ann Swerdfager and Antoni Cimolino.

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