The theater has had a long history of challenging the status quo. Even back to the days of ancient Greece, playwrights could become national heroes or national scoundrels based on the plays they wrote. In Elizabethan England, the production of Richard II on the stage of the Globe became so contentious that the theater was burned and later rebuilt, once the fervor had been silenced. Theater is a combination of collaboration, conflict, and art, with people acting out the part of conflict on a stage with each other and exploring what it means to die by the blade or come to terms with the social issues glaring the audience in the face. The theater has always been a place to either challenge the status quo or praise it; in this way, playwrights and directors are as much leaders as are presidents and prime ministers, because they lead through ideas and practical expose of the hidden shadow people are afraid to show in public.
Hallie Flanagan, an observer of the American theater scene, wrote about the power of the theater to evoke the most primal of emotions; Harry Hopkins, the leader of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, then hired Flanagan based on her careful and brilliant insights to bring demoralized people across America the joy of free theater, eventually helping to bring about an end to the social plague of slumlords and decrepit capitalistic housing projects.
Most astounding of all, however, was Augusto Boal. A Brazilian director, he sought to not only infuse his beliefs into the theater in order to enact social change, but to transform the theater scene into a place where people could not only voice their grievances but help alter the story itself, creating a method for collaboration in culture where patriarchal attitudes and qualities of singular power dominated. He encouraged the audience to step in and enact their own stories on the stage, creating a second voice in a traditionally monologuist artform.
Augusto Boal was jailed for his efforts to encourage the people to speak out their grievances in a public arena. He did not return to his family for 15 years, being forced to leave the country after his prison sentence. However, in 1992 he was asked to come back in a much calmer environment and was hired by the government to become a correspondent to the people about inequalities in the country by using theater. His story is one of victory, but only after years of isolation and sadness of being separated from his home.
In countries where the inequalities are enforced by the politics, is it possible for artists to thrive as leaders? Boal’s approach was bold, but perhaps too bold. He was not jailed and imprisoned because of his plays; he was jailed and imprisoned because the people wanted him to lead a rebellion against the government. He did not go seeking for that, but art is powerful and causes normally sane people to question the foundations they built their lives on, and temporarily become insane, open to paradigms they never even knew were possible. Great art fastens those paradigms to our experience, while other art gives us moments and then fades away. How can artists thrive in closed countries and continue to make a difference? Is defiance to authority an absolute in regards to altering the fate of oppression?
Art is held to the highest moral code in China. Artists like Ai Weiwei are held under house arrest, imprisoned, and never heard from again for 10 years. In a word: loudmouths don’t do well in China. They are cut down from top to bottom, and if they are not silenced, they only grow louder; at least that is the fear, and so the silencing grows more powerful with each new circumstance. I am keenly aware of the limits of art, and so are the artists. A visit to the Beijing 798 Art District showcases paintings and sculptures groaning in the excess of China’s grossly-expanding urbanization, in the starving capitalism that is consuming traditional culture, and the vast seas of people who don’t care. Art has become a contact point for the dispossessed spirit and a lost generation who find themselves without a compass, but that is as far as art can go. More creative leadership is needed, the kind of creative leadership that understands the dangerous context and knows how to both work within it as well as create change. Boal was imprisoned and exiled for 15 years; for a time, anyway, he shone.