‘Political’ Theater Anyone?

Yesterday’s news in our local paper about the jobless rate (unemployed and those not seeking employment) being 34% in our county and 44% in a neighboring county, combined with the same report’s statistics on high school dropout rates, has me thinking about ways writers and artists can contribute to a solution. I’m thinking about this in part because of the Low-Res Creative Writing MFA program I’ve been starting. It seems like any new program like this ought to have community involvement, whether that is locally or whether it is where our students actually live. I’m also always thinking about how our program will ad to the economy — what kinds of jobs our students will have and how they will benefit (practically) from their education.

Another recent news report was about for profit universities who will now be held accountable based on their graduates’ employment. While I’m glad our program won’t have to prove we led to higher employment rates or higher incomes of our graduates (not everyone studies creative writing to make more money), this report underscored the belief I have that create writing programs need to pay more attention to the practical realities of their students. We can’t just think about art for art’s sake, and we do need to consider the professionalization of our students as a positive thing.

What does all that have to do with political theater? Reading the newspaper article about jobless rates and dropout rates made me think about writers like Federico Garcia Lorca who was involved with proletarian theater in Spain. It also reminded me of the Reilly Theatre, whose play “Spill” documents the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Louisiana. Community theater is possible, and it can be political, though in my title I put that word in scare quotes because it doesn’t have to take a political side or advance any group’s political agenda. Theater that addresses relevant community issues and gives voice to those who may not have a voice without it is political.

So a community-based theater that explored the issues of dropouts and low employment rates could be a good idea for a program like ours. It could take people’s stories and put them on stage (or on the street if it’s street theater). It could get community members involved in the production and even the writing of a play or theater event. It might encourage some in the community to go back to school or to find a job, and it might expose the real problems these people face to a wider audience who may not see the issue in all its complexity. I don’t know all the complex facets of this problem, but a community theater project could explore them and help communicate them.

And a community theater that was actively involved in fighting the epidemic of high school dropouts or the challenges of a high jobless rate would probably be eligible for grant money. Artists don’t have to be starving and they don’t have to be completely altruistic in order to make a difference. MFA graduates should be creative and they should find creative ways to make a living, while also making a difference. Community service and self-interest don’t have to be at odds in other words, and any program that’s worth it’s salt ought to have a community service component. Theater is only one avenue that we might explore — literacy training, a poetry project, or an oral history project all might be equally effective. What we do will depend on the interests of our students and on what works with the community.

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