TV, Plays, and Social Change

From the Toronto Star:

Metta Spencer is a peace activist and emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Toronto with an unusual point of view: She thinks television and movies are powerful forces for good….

Dramatists can inspire us better than philosophers and pundits who appeal strictly to rationality. Fiction can combine reason and emotion, and it is the emotional aspect that motivates us to change our lives. Lately scientists have discovered that when we learn compassion from a show, not only does it give spiritual insights about human predicaments but the positive feelings also strengthen our immune systems….

Dramatic tension is part of what makes us want to follow a story, but all too often scriptwriters rely on trite formulas such as, “Will they catch the bad guy?” There are plenty of alternatives that are more worthwhile but equally gripping. Whatever the issue, if we care about the characters portrayed, we’ll want to help them succeed in changing the world for the better.

`Empathy for fictional characters changes us, whether in TV, movies, books or theatre’

Plays and social change:

Antiwar play invites you to ‘talk back’ about the war

by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.  [October 1, 2005]

[] The artists behind What I Heard About Iraq, the new antiwar play at Los Angeles’s Fountain Theater, don’t like what they’ve heard about the war — but they want to know what YOU think! That’s why every performance ends with audience members invited to “talk back” to the cast and director as they sit on stage and listen to YOUR opinions!


Playwright and director Simon Levy based his play on Eliot Weinberger’s article, “What I Heard About Iraq,” which appears in What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.  Levy’s minimalist play is told entirely through actual quotes originally spoken by the war’s architects and participants over the past several years, everyone from George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condaleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld, through to the actual soldiers, reporters, and Iraqis on the ground.

“I’d been searching for an antiwar play for the last 18 months as a response to the Iraq war, and how deeply I feel it is not only illegal but immoral and deeply damaging to everything America should stand for,” said Levy to the Hollywood Investigator.  “Nothing I read felt immediate, now! “Then a friend sent me Eliot’s article, which I avoided reading for about 2 months because it was 23 pages long! 

He urged me again to read it, which I did one night, and there it was, the cry I’d been searching for. “Not only did the article encapsulate the entire debacle, it was poetic and truthful.  The first words I wrote on a notepad was ‘A Cry for 5 Voices.’  Why? No idea.  But from that nub of an idea, I began to ‘see’ the article come to life on stage.  I pursued the rights, got them, then gathered a team of creative partners and rushed it into rehearsal so we could open on September 11th.”

The cast features Marc Casabani, Darcy Halsey, Tony Pasqualini, Bernadette Speakes, and Ryun Yu.  Brad Schreiber is Creative Media Consultant for the play, which features an audiovisual backdrop of wartime news footage, video wargames, and even a music video.

“Brad is a longtime friend,” said Levy, “a walking encyclopedia of many forms of media, an ardent activist for peace and humanity, and an important creative partner in the project who spent countless hours researching video and still images, plus music, and was deeply involved in the creative aspects and choices of the multimedia used in the show.”

Following every performance, audience members are invited to “talk back” to the director and cast, and express their views (and frustrations and perplexities) over the war. 

Sharing the stage on most nights are guest speakers from across the antiwar movement.  Guests have included Marcy Winograd, Blase Bonpane, Daniel Tamm, and this reporter (who represented the California Libertarian Party). “There are times in our history when it’s important that theater serve a community & public function,” said Levy. 

“The primary purpose of the Talkbacks is to allow the audience a public forum to express their feelings about all the issues the play deals with.  I’m much more interested in hearing the audience’s viewpoints than  to espouse my own.

“Guest speakers in the forefront of the antiwar/peace movements in the area offer the audience points of view they may not get through normal media channels. More importantly, they remind the audience that one person does matter, one person can affect change.  It’s important they feel empowered, especially beneath the weight of something as daunting as this war and the many policies of this administration.”

Because he believes the antiwar movement has broad nonpartisan support, Levy seeks guests from across the political and religious spectrum.  He’s found it easy to attract progressives in L.A., so he’s especially interested in attracting conservative and Christian antiwar spokespersons. 

He believes the opposition to the Iraq War is where the opposition to the Vietnam War was in 1965; he predicts that in five years the antiwar movement will be the mainstream majority, as was the case in 1970.

The response to his play has been “phenomenal,” said Levy.  “Many people are emotionally affected — from shame to sadness to anger to outrage to feeling helpless to wanting to change the world.  It’s not just rhetoric. “One young woman, after seeing the show and feeling she was not involved in society in any meaningful way, decided to volunteer for two weeks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Another woman said she simply shut down during the show because it was ‘too much,’ but as she continued speaking she broke down sobbing, releasing all the feelings she tried to prevent herself from feeling.

“A teen from Atlanta who grew up in a ‘Bush household’ said, ‘After seeing this show, I’m not sure how I’m going to talk with my mom.’ “

A young Iraq war vet told us, ‘If you showed the real truth on stage, no one in America would be able to take it.

‘”The power of theater is to take that which is intellectual or rhetorical and make it emotional.  If you can make a subject emotional to an audience member, they will respond and act in the world around the subject in a different way.  They have to because they’ve been touched.

“What I hope to accomplish is simple: to wake people up, to wake them up more, to reawaken the ones who have developed narcolepsy.”

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