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 schools 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 60s 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 ones 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.
THAWs 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 Wellmans 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:
The events are free and open to the public and its 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 were 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 Bangs incendiary Im 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:
Sally Eberhardt, a founding member of THAW accepted the grant and shared the following with the audience (broadcast live on WBAI):
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 -- www.THAWaction.org).
If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
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 ||
Copyright © 1995-2012 NPC Productions as a compilation. All Rights Reserved.