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Theater as an agent of feminism

I spent last week at a theatre festival in Minneapolis and something I heard a lot of was praise for plays that are outdated, discriminatory and supremacist. “It’s a product of its time” was the most common defense used in discussions of whether or not colleges and playhouses should continue to mount productions of plays like “Miss Julie,” the 1888 play that follows the demise of a wealthy woman after she is seduced by a lower class man. I bit my tongue as I watched young actors and directors jump to the defense of old plays that portrayed women as weak and undeserving, as objects or burdens, and, most commonly, as something to laugh at.

The thing that irked me most was not that these young thespians truly loved these plays; these thespians believed that, because these plays — plays that degrade women and glorify self-important, wealthy, white men — had a place in the society they were initially produced in, they should have a place in ours. It is the belief of many that, if something was worthwhile and revered in the time of its conception, so should it be today. And that, folks, is what keeps our society from moving forward and changing.

In a different workshop, a professional playwright wrote on the whiteboard: “Theatre is a reflection of the society in which it is created.” Her ideology was that we should do away with old work to make way for ideas and messages that resonate more within the context of our modern American society. If we hang on to the pinnacle pieces from past eras, then we’ll never move on from those times. And, in a lot of realms, theatre has done this very successfully.

We no longer engage in blackface. We no longer do productions of Terence’s “The Eunuch,” a play that condones rape. Thespians often denounce the racist, sexist, bigoted work of past thespians in that same way that most white people revile historical slavery in America. But, even as directors and actors condemn past practices, they still mount old work. Many thespians would gasp in horror at the suggestion that we stop doing Shakespeare. Many would be horrified at the suggestion that we stop doing old work in general. “It’s a product of its time!” they say, arguing that, because it was successful in the past, it is a part of history and needs to be redone and relived. Sure, we need to know our history in order to not repeat it but do we need to relive it?

I have dedicated my education to theatre because I love it. I think it is paramount that we tell stories and entertain. Theatre creates spaces for people’s voices to be heard and to hear voices in different ways. Plays ask questions of their audiences. Theatre engenders in its participants a desire to inquire and demand answers from the powers that be. Theatre has always been and always will be an agent of social change. Even shows like “Miss Julie” asked questions in their times. But those questions have been answered. There are new questions to ask. If we only ever do the tried and true shows from ages past, we stop asking questions of our audiences.

My issue with the “product of its time” argument is that it begs complacency with the mistreatment and misrepresentation of people. “Product of its time” in theatre means that we put up shows that degrade women and people of color. It means that we’re OK throwing around racial and gender slurs because they were used in the past. It creates a space that no longer asks questions and challenges societal norms. It turns theatre from a crucible of change to a stagnant pool of self-involved performers masturbating to the sounds of playwrights past.

These ideas don’t stop at the edge of the stage, though. We often apologize for the bigotry of our grandparents, saying that it’s not their fault that they use the N-word — they’re a product of their time. We shrug off the ravings of bigoted politicians, saying that they’re products of their time. And that’s a problem. We need to stop being complacent with the lack of respect products of other times have for people in our time. We need to stop mounting productions of shows that are outdated and demeaning. Instead of being complacent with products of other times, we, as young people — as agents of change — need to demand new productions: Products of this time.

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