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Stephanie Street: Theatre needs to come together to rail against the current political shitstorm

Will Barton in The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson: The current state of politics means it's more important than ever for the theatre community to band together. Photo: Pamela Raith
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This month’s column comes with a public service caution: It may contain political themes. I have never felt so concerned for the country we live in. And after the events of the last few years, that is saying something.

Amid deepening poverty and arguments for capital punishment and closing our borders, it feels like the pit only gets deeper and darker.

In the past, when I’ve felt out of sync with the times, I have been immensely thankful to be a theatremaker. When the bombs went off in London in 2005, I was in The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of a gay university student in late-1990s Wyoming, which was playing in central London. It gave me (and all of us working on that show) an incredible sense of purpose to be doing a piece of political theatre in the midst of terror and shutdown.

I’ve been holed away for the last two weeks making a piece of theatre with the wonderful young people of the National Youth Theatre. Our subject is the emotions of childhood and it’s been a joy listening to these young actors share honest reflections on their own formative years, which for some of them were immensely traumatic.

What has been even more uplifting is watching how they come together and communicate across significant differences in class, race, heritage, religion and culture. In our daily check-in we sit and share how we feel that morning, and what we are bringing into the room from our lives beyond the work. It’s been a pleasure to sit in the same circle and witness them hearing and seeing each others’ experiences and feelings.

At the very core of what we do is empathy. And theatre is only made through collective acceptance. It’s like that elemental improv game, ‘Yes and…’ – to do what we do you have to see and hear your collaborator, accept and build on what they offer. So, pretty much the binary opposite of what is happening in our politics right now.

If we – the artists – are exacting and enacting prejudice, then we’re ultimately doomed

So when I read in the Guardian this week about minority ethnicity performers’ continuing experience of exclusion and prejudice at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I felt strongly that we just have to do better than this. If we – the artists – are exacting and enacting prejudice, then we’re ultimately doomed. Our leadership in theatre cannot be like the political leadership we’re lumped with right now. We can’t all just frown and be dismayed that this is happening – it needs to stop and that has to be everyone’s responsibility.

I have always been immensely proud that I make my living by walking against the prevailing winds. But what’s blowing right now isn’t just wind… it’s a shitstorm. Theatre has a unique ability to keep us together, keep us communicating and now, more than ever, we need to be reminded of the importance of community.

Stephanie Street is an actor, writer and co-founder of Act for Change. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/stephanie-street/

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