Theater brings social change

October 22, 2014 Features

Theater has a bewitching nature. It has the ability to transform the actors onstage as well as its audience: captivating and making them pay close attention to the message being given. This is why theater is such an important platform to deliver a social message. Whether it is on Broadway or Off-Broadway, the meaning is just as impactful. “There is something transformative about entering into a dark room with a bunch of strangers, turning off the lights, and sharing an experience with a group of actors up on stage. The whole experience is a lovely social exercise. I think theater teaches us all to be better people, regardless of the context; we are human beings sharing social cues and responding to each other.” remarked Lauren Worsham, Tony Nominated actress starring in the 2014 Tony winner for Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder. “This can be difficult for those of us glued to our phones all the time. Theater teaches us to laugh, smile, relax, be attentive and really listen.”

So what makes the audience passionate? Theater tends to revive shows as well as produce entirely new ones. Has the broad social message changed in our recent, biggest, stage productions? Andy Karl, Tony nominated actor and star of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Rocky, believes so: “Many things have changed. The spectacle is much bigger every year. Video screens are a huge part of telling the story now. The boxing ring in Rocky was an incredibly interactive and diverse piece of scenery. As far as content, musicals, I think, have become much more self aware.” But at the same time, he agrees that theater is also capable of revolutionizing: “Musicals can transform your emotions and mind when they strike deep into what matters about our human journey. The mission to find love and joy with life is what musicals should always try to accomplish. I mean that in the least sappy way possible.”

Theater has become more bold and challenging with its subject matter. In 2009 the musical Next to Normal, music and lyrics written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, focuses on several issues including suicide, drug abuse, and grieving. In October 2014 the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened on Broadway after much success in the West End of London, England. The play centers on the character of Christopher described as “a brilliantly talented mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” This play’s clever set design and stage directions allow the audience to see the world through his unique perspective. Newer shows like these mentioned invite the audience to reflect on its poignant messages while giving these human characters a voice and spotlight on stage.

In the revival play You Can’t Take It With You, written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, there is a theme of the importance of family and how life should not be ruled by money and greed. Will Brill, a film and stage actor currently starring in the aforementioned production, reflects on the significance theater can have to expand a person’s capacity for empathy: “When this play was written in the wake of America’s first huge financial disaster it seemed to be saying, ‘How fulfilling can it be to constantly struggle for money alone? Find what calls to you and pursue that, and let the rest fall into place.’ And now today, even when the millennial generation is independently striving to pave their own way through life, Wall Street and corporate greed constantly are making headlines, and money is on everyone’s minds. As long as people struggle with money and some people own the vast majority of it—and as we continue to see how unsatisfying that pursuit can be—this story will be relevant.”

​According to Dr. William Boles, Professor of English at Rollins College, the ability to influence and inform an audience can become complex: “There can be an immediacy to the theater that allows the writers, producers, directors, actors, etc. to respond to events and transcribe them to the stage. This is extremely powerful. At the same time it is extremely problematic. If the play has political leanings, then the audiences for these productions are going to be heavily tilted to the politics being depicted. If you are against gay marriage, are you really going to go see a play that supports gay marriage? Not likely.” This important argumentative point provides support to how theater has a responsibility to attract audiences with more than its message, but by immersing theatergoers in a night of magic and wonder.

​Are there still stereotypes of what an actor should look like in the theater world? Mr.Brill comments that he does not believe so. “I think there’s an old idea and goal that’s shared among many actors—the desire to be transformative, to play as wide a range of roles as one’s physical instrument allows. But the myriad of human bodies that the world’s offered up allows for endless variation. Some people will play a wider range of characters, some narrower, but even that speaks little to one’s ability and the depth of soul or humor they’ll exhibit.” Dr. Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, feels that when theater deals with old stereotypes, it depends on the genre: “There is more variety when dealing with realism. A lot of people are trying to reflect the world as we see it. The more traditional the piece, the more it harkens back to the era of the Mid-Twentieth Century. Dr. Boles indicates the potential for future acting roles to be entirely gender free: ‘While there are still numerous problems with casting, especially when it comes to color blind casting, the door is slowly opening on the possibilities for women to play roles that used to be off-limits, which makes it, for some, an exciting time.’”

​This spring Rollins College is producing the 1928 play Machinal by female playwright Sophie Treadwell, which follows the story of a woman who becomes a cog in the gender conformity machine. Dr. Cavenaugh emphasizes the importance of female playwrights in theatre: “The 1920s was a radical time for feminism, and some of those female playwrights are still extremely relevant today. They wrote about struggling with the emerging sense of the woman, forced in and out of choices, and conforming to an established vision of womanhood that they don’t want.” This past fall season the Annie Russell Theatre presented the musical Working, which showcased a variety of people from all spectrums of the social ladder. Dr. Cavenaugh theorizes that the social structure of a community is an issue that a student audience would be most challenged by: “I find that college students are more comfortable talking about gender and race because they can see the power dynamics and issues. Class makes people very uncomfortable. America is a place where we are so invested in the idea of ‘All men are created equal’ that we are not comfortable looking at social and economic oppression.”

​Our unique experiences, how we view the world and who we are as individuals ultimately decide how we interpret a theatrical play or musical. Mr. Brill considers the excitement in a disparate audience: “In a comedy, the show is built to be tethered to the audience’s laughter. In a show where laughter is not the primary goal, it’s still about making an audience witness to a truly human experience—person to person.” If we are more inspired to write to begin bringing about change in our communities, just as we are to attend a theater production and listen to what it has to say, then we can shine a spotlight on the issues that are most dear to us. Theatre is not only a culturally enriching experience, but a means of social change and awareness. Perhaps, in that way, you really can take it with you.

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