Can theatre change the world?

Early Days of a Better Nation. Photo: Coney
Early Days of a Better Nation. Photo: Coney
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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Can theatre change the world for the better? I think it can and should. Last week at two very different conferences I experienced a provocation of this statement and proof of it.

At the Critics Circle Centenary Conference the circle's oldest enfant terrible Nicholas de Jongh cited how Kenneth Tynan helped abolish censorship through his 'ridicule, force and mockery'. In typically provocative form, he then accused small theatres of turning their back on satire. Why wasn't Tynan's tactic being used in theatre today? Satire, he argued, was the only way to effect real political change and it was beholden on us to do better.

As someone who spends a lot of time in small theatres I have to say I agree with him - cutting edge satire has been the province of TV for a long time now. While that's no bad thing - with TV viewing figures far outstripping theatre sizes - I think we're missing a trick by not offering it live on a regular basis.

Of course we have a wealth of political work on the fringe from new writing to performance art. The Big Idea discussions going on at the Royal Court are a great example of how theatres are engendering tangible change. But they're not funny - nor do they claim to be - and nothing really effects our attitudes to those in power more than ridicule.

NewsRevue at the Canal Cafe is perhaps the closest thing we've got but its targets are more populist than political. It's not using it's power to effect societal change and - in the face of sounding incredibly pompous - it should be.

On the other end of spectrum theatrical game makers Coney are showing how theatre can make you reassess the way you live. Their immersive playful event, FuturePlay - taking place last weekend at Futurefest, a conference on future societies - is an interactive performance looking at our roles in society. People within a community sign up to FuturePlay to become agents, and get tasked to do good things to help others in the community, as a kind of "game-ified altruism".

Three teams offer you a choice of how you want to play, ranging from mischievous rule breakers to thoughtful strategists. Throughout you are asked to asses what kind of player you are and what kind you want to be.

It's a lot more competitive and a lot less touchy feely than it sounds and it begins to change the way you think about how you act in society, what you want from your community and what you're prepared to do for other people. Coney call it an 'everyday playful revolution' and it's certainly begun shaking things up in me. It's making me look at the world differently and begin to imagine how the things within it can be different.

Coney's next show Early Days (of a Better Nation) again promises to encourage us to imagine a better world - it's an ambition I wish more in the industry were as open about because theatre can change the world. Let's get out there and make it happen.

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