Poverty, New Media, and the Stage: New-Style Participatory Politics Within Reach?

Reflections on a Bay Area Playwrights Foundation Roundtable

by Jean Johnstone, ATAI Founder/ Exec. Director; Executive Director, Teaching Artists Guild

At play with the International Youth Theater Project, Oakland 2014

At play with the International Youth Theater Project, Oakland 2014, using digital media to connect youth internationally as they devise theater pieces based on a social issue.

This past summer I attended the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation roundtable “Making Theater In A Messed Up World”, moderated by the amazing Velina Brown. It was a moving, engaging, and inspiring three hours. This was what drew me in: “Come and talk with premium political theater makers, playwrights, critics, and pioneers of social justice movements. Talk about making the choice be a social and political activist through theater, and how that expression has transformed in the 21st Century.” My only regret was that it couldn’t last longer and delve deeper into the topics, but with 14 people, including Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, Kinan Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theater, Rhodessa Jones of Cultural Odyssey, Christine Young of USF Department of Theater and Social Justice, Joan Holden, Playwright, Sean San Jose of Intersection+Campo Santo and Lindsay Krumbein of Gritty City Rep, and Michael Gene Sullivan of the SF Mime Troupe, all crammed on stage in the Thick House Theater, little wonder. Velina and BAPF, I look forward to part two!

Let’s continue the dialogue here: I want more conversation about what the newest version of this political theater work really is, this transformation in the 21st century. The last 90 years or so got us out of the theater and back into the plaza, the workers’ field, the park, the prison. We started asking people to describe their own realities, and to bring those to the stage. Now we have a whole digital world to incorporate, and I am SO curious how others are using, not denying, this medium to further their work in the field of theater, and in particular, applied theater. If our goal (and of course this is debatable, but this is my version of it) is to tell stories which, thru the very act of telling, connect people to each other and therefore create a sense of the absolute necessity of action on an issue, why couldn’t digital media, the instant activism vehicle held in hands across the world, help us in this?

This is especially pertinent in reaching and working with rising populations of young people, and young and poor people. We have seen recently how the impact of new media has played out nationally and internationally. According to a recent report by the United Nations, out of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have a mobile phone! However, far fewer (4.5 billion) worldwide have access to proper sanitation, reflecting extreme poverty and inequality. In the US, this project of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth & Participatory Politics on New Media and Youth Political Action reports that, contrary to the notion of the great digital divide, 96% of Latino, 94% of black and 98% of Asian American youth report having access to internet on a computer, while (yes- it’s a lot of statistics but keep reading!) 43% of white, 41% of black, 38 % of Latino, and 36% of Asian American youth engaged in participatory politics via the internet. This is huge news for all of us in the political or educational theater worlds.

Put it all together, and you get an amazing tool for giving voice to the “voiceless”. Speaking of which, here is Mike Rose, in his Summer 2013 article for Dissent Magazine, “The Inner Life of the Poor”, which I think pretty much sums up why many of us in this field do the work we do:

Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others. If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it is from those attributions that we develop both our personal and public policy responses to poverty.

Hear, hear. He goes on to say:

Because the invisibility of the poor is ultimately a sociological and political phenomenon, I am interested in places or occasions where poor people become more fully present, actors on the societal stage, and their thoughts and feelings play out in ways that can have a positive effect on the direction of their lives. Social movements provide such a space. Cultural projects do as well—in churches and community centers, women’s shelters, prison arts programs.

Me too, Mr. Rose. And another place, or way, is via participatory (or digital) media. Put it all together and what have you got? We don’t know yet, but perhaps something! What are you doing to connect these worlds of stage and web and action? How do you tell your stories? Email or comment to let us know. Let the conversation continue!



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