See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) Recent books by In Motion Magazine co-editors

Art Changes
Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Theaters Against War (THAW)
after the New Orleans
National Convergence of Artists, Educators and Organizers

by Sophia Skiles
New York, New York

THAW joins FEVA (the Federation of East Village Artists) at the March 30, 2004 peace march in New York City.

THAW joins FEVA.

THAW is an international network of theater artists responding to the United States' ongoing "War on Terror", aggressive and unilateral foreign policies, and escalating attacks on civil liberties in the US and throughout the world. -- Mission Statement for Theaters Against War (THAW)

In the year that I have been active as a community organizer for Theaters Against War (THAW), I have often been asked, as a theatre artist do I have a role in influencing or commenting upon the political scene? Someone who really threw the gauntlet down in response to that question was Paul Robeson, who declared: "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” The quotation is a kind of clarion call for THAW. We all make choices -- conscious or no -- about how we conceive of our level of civic participation. Being an artist can make those choices more complex, richer. The artist has the opportunity, if not the responsibility to take that creative awareness, which is a kind of power, into the material world.

Art depends on freedom of expression -- the artist is either fighting for it or enjoying it, sometimes both at once. There is a real act of will in resisting the connection to fighting or enjoying other kinds of freedom.

In January of this year, I traveled to New Orleans for a portion of the National Convergence of Artists, Educators and Organizers as a delegate for THAW. Arriving for the first full day of activities in the school’s cafeteria clad proudly in my THAW t-shirt, I was among a wealth of diverse attendees -- the event was coordinated to include 50% women and people of color, 50% people under 30 and 50% folks who were educators or organizers. Together, we were working in our respective neighborhoods around the country on a wide range of arts and social issues -- education reform, social justice, racism, civil liberties, discrimination and affordable housing with decades of experience in the room from the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement of the 60’s and beyond. During the course of the two and a half day event, introductions and dialogue would help to lay the foundation towards a potentially larger social justice movement.

The first order of business that morning was still perhaps the most poignant for me of the entire weekend: a quick introduction of each of the over 200 participants consisting of name, city, affiliation and five personally chosen words. It was a lengthy but glorious parade of vigilant, creative, enthusiastic citizenship.

Over a delicious lunch of soul food staples, I ran into THAW member theater Optative Lab from Canada -- one of the more than 200 hundred national and international Member Theaters that make of the THAW consortium. Everywhere, people were gathering in clusters over plantains and jerk chicken in a race against time to find more about each other and their work. In introducing myself as a delegate for THAW, I encountered several individuals who had been a part of the global readings of Lysistrata last winter, which was organized by Kathryn Blume and brainstormed at the initial THAW town hall at P.S. 122 in the winter of 2002.

I later joined a larger discussion of next steps for creating a larger social justice movement -- a daunting topic that proved far too wieldy for the weekend, much less an afternoon. Still it was insightful in revealing the overwhelming desire and need to connect to larger communities while refining and strengthening one’s own.

Since the convergence, THAW has in fact remained strong in its commitment its community in producing a number of events: a monthly pro-peace cabaret called the Freedom Follies, Town Halls (to brainstorm and plan arts-related actions in response to the Republican National Convention in late August), upcoming Political Comedy Hours, as well as a recent 2-day Teach-in at Hunter College in April.

THAW’s Freedom Follies began in July of 2003 and evolved from what was known as “24-7 Against the War.” These initial events took place at HERE Arts Space and were coordinated by director Josh Fox during the winter leading up to the official start of the American-led occupation of Iraq. Kristin Marting of HERE generously donated the dark time in her space (midnight to noon the next day, all through the weekend) where theater artists and citizens could bring virtually anything -- songs, poems, readings, even a full-length performance of Mac Wellman’s “Three Americanisms” -- to engage in dialogue about the war. The lateness of the hour made for heady, strange gatherings from night to night and a necessary tonic to the anxiety the media was fomenting. And despite the so-called “failure” of the global demonstrations to “stop” the war, the gatherings themselves -- small and large -- were enormous achievements. The real challenge was continuing and building the momentum of these politically-engaged and creative exchanges, separate from the bombast of the mainstream media.

Noel Salzman, a theater director and I offered to step in to keep these events going through the summer. The key components of what has become the Freedom Follies are theater, information, community -- where timely themes sharpen the dialogue to create a long-term pro-peace culture. Since then, hundreds of diverse artists and citizens have convened in spaces donated by THAW member theaters to respond to a range of topics, including:

  • Dropping the Bomb: The Struggle for Peace in a Military Culture
  • Liberate Yourself from Mass Media
  • Civil and Human Rights vs. The PATRIOT and VICTORY Acts
  • Election Day: Cleaning Out the (White) House! Civic Participation in a Corporate-Dominated Age
  • All Together Now: Freedom of Assembly

The events are free and open to the public and it’s been a thrilling opportunity for THAW member theaters from abroad to have a venue to share their work with the NYC community -- a number of Australian-based companies visited last fall and we’re looking forward to D.C.’s Aldebaran taking the stage this July. The diversity -- ethnically, generationally -- has been wide; from the participatory improvisations of Playback Theater to the Living Theater and DadaNYC, from veteran actress Dale Soules to playwright and provocateur Reverend Billy, from the early stages of Hieronymous Bang’s incendiary “I’m Gonna Kill the President” to the visual and musical pageantry of Bread and Puppet Theater. As we approach the Follies first anniversary on July 27 with the theme Declaration of Independence: Artists Statements, we look forward to many more in the future.

This past spring, THAW was awarded a prestigious OBIE grant by the Village Voice. Following is the introduction made by acclaimed actress Swoosie Kurtz:

”Trying to organize theater people to take collective action is like herding cats. And in an age when nobody can afford to risk alienating a donor, getting companies to take a dissenting stand is even harder. Nonetheless, without a dime in their pockets, a spunky and courageous band of artists has gotten more than 150 theater groups to speak out for civil liberties and to declare their opposition to aggressive and unilateral foreign policies. Through their rich website and in other ways, they have provided resources for groups that want to learn more. They have also hosted major teach-ins for the theatrical community with experts on such subjects as the war economy and corporate media, and for almost a year they have been producing a monthly political cabaret called the Freedom Follies. Most important, perhaps, they have helped funnel theater folks into the international movement for peace. With hope that their purpose will soon be obsolete, the judges are pleased to present a Village Voice OBIE grant to: THEATRES AGAINST WAR.”

Sally Eberhardt, a founding member of THAW accepted the grant and shared the following with the audience (broadcast live on WBAI):

“We were hoping that Theaters Against War might win a citation tonight and we’ve come up with three brief things to say on behalf of the more than 200 theaters and theater companies who constitute THAW and who have been working together for peace for over the last year and a half.

“FIRST, a thank you to the OBIES for this award, especially at this time. The exposure of the award along with the financial assistance it brings is going to be invaluable to us as we gear up now to get people out and protesting for an end to our country’s illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq in this election year. So we thank you for this wonderful opportunity of greater visibility and for this much-needed financial assistance.

“SECOND, we wanted to ask everyone here tonight -- if you as an individual or if your theater is NOT ALREADY SIGNED ON with Theaters Against War, -- PLEASE JOIN US NOW. Joining us can mean any number of things but at the bare bones minimum it means that you support our mission statement which is simply: THAW is an international network of theater artists responding to the United States' ongoing "War on Terror", its aggressive and unilateral foreign policies, and its escalating attacks on civil liberties in the US and throughout the world. IF YOU ARE ALREADY A MEMBER OF THAW as I suspect many in this room are, PLEASE help us to grow -- by spreading the word NOW. We have a most important battle ahead of us as November looms and we need to grow and gain energy from NEW Member Theaters and new individuals -- not just here in New York but around the world.

“FINALLY, we wanted to leave you with a quotation from Paul Robeson which the actress Juliana Francis suggested in the early days of THAW, and which has remained on our website and continues to represent where we are coming from. Robeson spoke these words at the height of the Spanish Civil War and the fight against fascism and today, almost 70 years later, they seem more important than ever:

“ ’The artist must take sides.
He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.
I have made my choice.
I had no alternative.’ “

About the Author: Sophia Skiles is a New York-based actor and teaching artist with an unwieldy penchant for both classical and avant-garde theater. She is a community organizer and Steering Committee member for Theaters Against War (THAW --

Published in In Motion Magazine July 26, 2004

Email, Opinions & Discussion

If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
E-mail, Opinions & Discussion column click here to send e-mail to

In Unity/NPC Productions/Links

What is New? || Affirmative Action || Art Changes || Autonomy: Chiapas - California ||
Community Images || Education Rights || E-mail, Opinions and Discussion ||
En español || Essays from Ireland || Global Eyes || Healthcare ||
Human Rights/Civil Rights || Piri Thomas ||
Photo of the Week || QA: Interviews || Region || Rural America ||

Search || Donate || To be notified of new articles || Survey ||
In Motion Magazine's Store || In Motion Magazine Staff ||
In Unity Book of Photos ||
Links Around The World || OneWorld / US ||
NPC Productions

Copyright © 1995-2012 NPC Productions as a compilation. All Rights Reserved.