Eve Ensler is no stranger to addressing an audience, whether it wants to hear what she has to say or not.
Her most noted work, The Vagina Monologues, has been seen by millions of people all over the world, from professional stages to college campuses to the Michigan State House. A two-hour frank discussion of the experiences and realities of female genitalia, ranging from the humorous to the deeply tragic and profound, is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea; however, few would be able to dispute the importance of the piece in an ongoing feminist dialogue. The recent reading in Michigan illustrates that.
In recent days, though, Ensler’s activism has occurred off the stage. In response to Todd Akin’s now-infamous “illegitimate rape” comment, Ensler published a graphic-but-poignant letter calling him out for his bogus and ignorant statements. Rather than allow her theatre pieces to speak on her behalf, she chose to address her subject herself.
The relationship between theatre and politics is longstanding and fascinating, but in this new age of communication and the Internet, that relationship can continue even after the houselights come up. Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, and Tony Kushner are a few of many playwrights who whole-heartedly embraced politics when writing their plays, but times and technologies have changed; I can only imagine what Arthur Miller could have come up with in a 140-character tweet about Joe McCarthy. If theatre artists want to continue finding ways to make their voices heard, it inevitably requires embracing the new ways audiences are willing to receive information. Ensler knows this; after all, she was able to respond directly to Akin via the Internet all the way from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If we had to wait until her next play premiered to hear her voice, it would have taken much longer to begin a discussion.
Ensler’s case is interesting to me, though, because she is an American theatre artist currently working abroad but still addressing American issues. She is also forced to leave her comments in the stratosphere of the Internet for interpretation and debate. On the other end of the spectrum, however, we have artists interacting on a personal level with citizens of their community in my hometown of Charlotte, NC, currently host to the Democratic National Convention.
Here is where I get to brag a little bit. Seizing on the sudden influx of potential audience over the course of the convention, several theatre and arts organizations united to create the Quasimodo Project. The mission? “To create, enable, and showcase the best, most innovative, challenging and accessible cultural offerings of the region during the DNC.” This is being accomplished through street performance and pop-up theatre where artists directly address the passers by, as well as a “Mile-long Art Gallery” and a “Yard Art Day” where anyone can show off their artistic passions. The audience is already united by political motivations, whether they are there to support the Convention or protest it; regardless, they will come face to face with local artistic fare.
Given that this is an election year—and a heated one at that—it’s no wonder that the intersection of politics and art has been on my mind fairly steadily recently. Looking at several theatre companies’ fall seasons, it seems to me that we’re going to be hearing about a lot of politics on our stages over the next few months; and, if Ensler is any indication, we’ll be seeing it off stage as well. Whether artists are choosing to speak their minds on the Internet or in person, this is a topic that is firing up the theatre community in new and invigorating ways. I’m certainly excited to see what comes of it.
Uptown Charlotte was crowded during Carolina Fest, the day prior to the opening of the DNC. Members of the Quasimodo Project worked to engage attendees artistically. (Photo Credit: The Charlotte Observer)
By James Kennedy