Theatre is Dangerous
Posted on 05 July 2016
I am producing a musical about elephants. This is a subversive act.
You may not at first think this would prove to be a minefield of significant proportions, but any number of things can blow up in my face about the production: issues to do with classism, racism, and animal portrayal.
The idea to do Heard of Elephants came before I found some reasons for it. My grandfather had worked with elephants for a period of time when he was helping people to grow crops in Vietnam. I am also aware of their sigificance to the biosphere. I had been looking for a way to represent how we are complicit in the creation of refugees and had a responsibility to care for those forced from their homelands.
When elephants came to mind it was easy to see the whole destructive cycle we have created. Western lifestyles have caused global warming. Climate change has put environmental pressure on the ability of peoples within third world countries to survive. They turn to their natural resources and further destroy them in order to live just one more day. However, destroying their ecosystems results in further losses. The desertification of their countries results in civil unrest and ultimately refugees. On top of that the whole world loses the forests which are the major carbon sinks for this planet.
Elephants are a keystone species for the survival of the Congo jungles. If we lost a large segment of these forests, we have a greater hope of reviving them with the presence of the elephants who disperse and fertilise seeds and keep overgrowth under control.
So there we have it: a story whereby the connection between social justice and environmentalism can be be portrayed in one neat package.
I did a lot of research about elephants: their behaviour and their circumstances. I am also concerned about the circumstances of the people who live with them and protect them. I am doing all I can to have a truthful portrayal of elephant life and how that affects everything and everyone. However, I immediately had people objecting without having read or even seen my musical.
“Why aren’t you doing a musical about endangered Australian animals? You know there are only twenty rock wallabies left in the wild; they are threatened with extinction too!” That is a concern. I was inspired to write about elephants. Perhaps another time I will write about rock wallabys. Better still, why don’t you write about rock wallabys, so more than one person is working on these issues.
“Why are people only focussing on charismatic mega-fauna? We take care of them then we leave without protection or help many less charismatic creatures.” I respect that all of life needs our consideration. Neither myself nor my actors are so shallow as to think that the problem stops with elephants. Elephants being intelligent, emotional creatures with a culture of their own are easier to truthfully represent and elicit empathy on stage. They provide a doorway to opening conversation and inspiring action. Perhaps another time I will write a musical from the perspective of a coral polyp.
In order to write about elephants I had to choose which elephants: elephants in zoos and circuses, elephants in Asia, or elephants in Africa.
Elephants in zoos and circuses are a big problem. Very few of these organisations are properly caring for their elephant charges. A musical could and should be written about this. I have some ideas. Elephants in Asia have the additional issue of their treatment as work animals. If my focus was to be on the environment and refugees, the clearest example was going to be African elephants.
I did not want to insult any particular country in Africa, so I invented a new one: Kinzibar. A line I use in the plays is that elephants are neither black nor white–they are grey, they belong to all of us. As such I cast people to play elephants who are from Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, India, Philippines, Portugal, Italy, etc. Elephants are not human beings. Elephants are elephants. So this should make no difference and hopefully broaden the audience’s perspective.
Of course there’s still the issue of my being a white person writing and directing this work.
Within the living memory of the family I grew up with I have an American Indian great grandmother. I did not meet her, nor do I know much about her. It is still considered shameful by my family that our blood isn’t “pure”. So long as we pass as white and our status is secure, her memory is being obliterated. This concerns me. This is also my heritage, of equal importance as any other heritage. When J.K. Rowling decided to include American Indian mythology in her Harry Potter world I was dismayed. On the one hand it is important to reflect the diversity of our world in our stories, but we must reflect and represent, not misappropriate. It’s okay to write about other peoples, provided you do your research and you consult with people from those communities. And of utmost importance be truthful and respectful.
The focus of Heard of Elephants is largely the elephants themselves. The humans we meet are rangers doing their duty. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fairly and entirely avoid all expression of African culture. So, I did research, spoke with people, and have taken on actors who can speak for themselves about whether or not something is truthful. I cannot guarantee I am getting this perfect, but I am doing my best and am interested in doing it better. The one thing that would add significantly to my portrayal of events is if I had the chance to actually go to places like Kenya or South Africa. I have nowhere near the financial means to travel for that sort of research. I keep hoping this show will open that door.
One fascinating piece of research I did was watching recordings of news reports from within African countries. I made a lot of use of these to build my story. These peoples can be so modern and so sophisticated, yet they have to face base treatment by first world countries who are keeping them locked into impoverishment.
I hear people talk about ethics in theatre. What they feel is ethical will depend upon their class standing and understanding.
Making art is work. It takes time, it takes skill, it takes funding. Some arts can be done individually such as painting and sculpting and some, like theatre, require a collaborative effort. As soon as a work requires collaboration the questions become who pays who and how much.
The film and television portrayal of live theatre shows wealthy producers making high concept plays at lavish theatres. Many people’s experience of theatre is either that made at the large venues such as a state arts centre or well-appointed school or community theatres which are being funded by governments at the state or council level. New theatre rarely has access to any of this. It’s often done on tatty old stages or in converted spaces. Yet, this is where the big names of playwriting, screenwriting, and acting will come from. We all have to start somewhere. Those taking the safe road by performing as singer number two in a large musical production will be paid, but may never be anything more than singer number two.
I can tell you for a fact that it’s very difficult getting anyone to produce original theatre of a challenging political nature. You can get a little bit through, if it represents a popular zeitgeist. Mostly people who write this sort of material have to produce their own shows, and people who feel the need to write this sort of material often don’t have much money. These pieces may eventually take off and make a load of cash, but they don’t start that way and no one can predict it. Everyone who climbs on board (actors, directors, crew) at the early stages has to be there because they care about art and they care about the subject matter. It’s very likely the producer will be out of pocket and people will be paid in goodwill and experience. Be glad actors that with profit share, you are never asked to help pay for any short-falls, which would be the case with a genuine cooperative business. Let me add: if money is made, everyone should get a fair cut.
I have heard a few playwrights with high paying day jobs talking about how much more “ethical” they are than the poor playwrights, because they are paying the actors. If they were truly ethical, they wouldn’t be voting in governments that cut $130 million from the arts and defunds 65 arts organisations. They would speak up when public radio, public television, and community arts centres are closed. Without people agreeing to work together to create art, the voices of women, children, indigenous, immigrant, ethnic, and impoverished people are not heard. We do not learn of their experiences, their worlds, and we do not have an opportunity to empathise. Without people agreeing to work together to speak out on the behalf of our co-travellers on this planet, the plants and animals, how do we raise awareness and engage people in making change.
Sadly, when someone does put up a play on a minuscule budget, sometimes they face problems with reviewers, who rather than looking at the quality of the storytelling and acting, get caught up in the production values. Worse is when they get on their high horses and are critical of a work because it addresses the needs of the vulnerable, rather than representing their world of privilege. This happens, for instance, when a reviewer lambastes a modern language version of a Shakespeare play, because they feel the story should be locked behind antiquated language that only a wealthy education can unlock.
Theatre is not for the faint of heart. No one should go into the arts unless they genuinely care about the arts or the issues it represents. But if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, grab it with both hands and hang on for dear life. The world needs you. It may not understand why it needs you, but it does. The journey will be a hard and bumpy one, but you will make of the world a better place. In the mean time I will keep doing the crazy thing of writing about elephants and hope everyone finds it thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and reason to go out and support life!
Peace and kindness,