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Amber Massie-Blomfield: Protests and theatres have always made for comfortable bedfellows

Art installation Exhibit B was shut down due after it due protests when it opened at the Barbican. Photo: Jeremy Abrahams

When demonstrators take to the streets outside the Print Room on Thursday, they’ll join a long tradition of protests at theatres.

From the recent, much retweeted curtain call of Hamilton after vice president elect Mike Pence showed up for a hip-hop history lesson, and the furore surrounding the Barbican’s Exhibit B in 2014, to what must be history’s best-spoken political occupation – the 1989 vigil at the site of the Rose Playhouse, attended by luminaries including Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen – theatres have often become sites of activism. This month, senior arts figures in the States have called for a culture strike to take place on President Trump’s inauguration day, urging organisations (including theatres) to close for the day to protest “the normalisation of Trumpism”.

Renewed links between theatre and protest site are timely

It’s no coincidence that theatres lend themselves so readily to demonstrations. At its most basic, theatre is a place to stand in public and say: “This is what I believe.” It is a forum to contest, collectively, our value systems and what it means to be part of society. The reassertion of the proximity between the theatre and the protest site – in a moment when public space is increasingly being privatised, and the causes for political indignation are growing ever more numerous – is timely. As the organisers of the inauguration day action have said, their strike should be “an invitation to motivate (arts) activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling and acting can be produced”.

It was ironic that Donald Trump, who is doing so much to damage the sense of personal safety of the vulnerable and marginalised in the US, called for theatre to be a “safe and special place” in the wake of the Hamilton row. Not unusually, he missed the point entirely. For if theatres are to be safe spaces, it is only in the sense that they are contexts where we should feel comfortable to expose, and explore, our differences. But it is entirely right that they should be places of friction, debate and dangerous ideas. After all, they always have been.

I don’t intend to advocate non-peaceful protest, or to encourage anyone to go about challenging anyone else to a duel, as is alleged to have happened at one of the most infamous arts riots of all time, the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It is worth highlighting that the organisers of next week’s action have been at pains to encourage demonstrators not to disrupt the performance.

Ultimately, a protest like this is an expression of the belief that what happens in a theatre really does matter. It is a reminder that the images and ideas that begin on our stages are both a metaphor for and have an influence on wider society. Although it’s lamentable that the protest at the Print Room concerns not an art form disrupting the status quo with genuinely radical ideas, but theatre’s dismal ongoing failure to deal with its diversity problem, the desire to stand up, make your voice heard, these are gestures that say: we believe in a better world. They give reason for hope. And what’s more, they’re entirely theatrical.

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