Occupy Broadway: Theater can focus protests’ passion

by Beacon Staff • November 10, 2011

strongBenjamin Kabialis, Theater Columnist/strong

img class=alignleft title=Ben Kabialis, Theater Columnist src=http://berkeleybeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/benshot.jpg alt= width=361 height=400 /During the Great Depression, a burgeoning population of workers’ theater groups stamped on posters and playbills a common and empowering phrase: “Theater is a weapon.”

Theater welcomed the exuberance of material forged from the passions of deeply personal battles for workers’ rights, and workers cultivated theater as a tool to raise class-consciousness.  As American theater looks for the spark of revolution and Occupy Wall Street receives criticism for lack of direction, partipants in both camps must take hold of this powerful partnership.

Why does American theater dissolve while Occupy Wall Street bolsters its ranks? The latter is held together by a shared and deeply personal connection to the cause, while the former has become an institution completely out of touch with reality. Rather than an exploration of humanity, theater has become an exploration of theater.  In colleges and universities actors study the craft of acting and playwrights study the writing of plays. The art form has become a sort of members-only party with no guiding principles outside those of economics. In several ways, Broadway’s grandiose theaters, movie star performers, and steep ticket prices mirror the one percent of America’s Wall Street.

The Worker’s Laboratory Theater, the Group Theater, and the Labor Stage were only a few of hundreds of troupes during the 1930s that proved theater could thrive without the resources or splendor of Broadway.

During the Penney’s department store strike of 1936, workers in need of a stage removed all the merchandise from store windows and performed their strike’s history to passing window shoppers. Instead of professionals, these groups all used laborers as actors, playwrights, directors. The audiences were workers, too.

While the performances were often reviewed as crude, they were distinguished for their contagious vivacity. Rather than a playwright’s personal experience given second-hand to actors and directors and then shown to strangers, these plays became a conversation on a united perspective.

Occupy Wall Street receives constant criticism for its lack of direction, but the movement is just working and communicating in ways that capitalistic organizations don’t expect or understand. The movement can learn from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a successful protest group of unskilled laborers operating from 1902 to 1918.

This group was brutally criticized for the same faults attributed to Occupy Wall Street. Instead of conceding to a form of assembly that matched the prevailing corporate structure, they relied on soapbox oratory and improvisational song and theater to spread the word at public rallies.

The theater of this and other movements often ignored the line between patron and performer. Occupy Wall Street is already a highly inclusive movement and could use theater as a way of communicating through community.

Throughout the 1930s workers’ movement, theater proved strongest when used as a tool for holding protest groups together.

Take for instance the 1936 General Motors strike, when workers occupied factories for a month and a half.  To sustain the sort of morale necessary for this undertaking, the workers created a thriving community with theater at its center.  Skits were performed detailing their own struggles and the participants were both entertained and reminded of their personal connection to the cause.

With winter approaching and harsh media criticism growing, Occupy Wall Street can use theater as a way of building community and maintaining a sense of passion in their own ranks.

emKabialis is a junior writing, literature, and publishing major and can be reached at benjamin_kabialis@emerson.edu./em