Radical Theatre: The Roots of Social Action

Katy Ryan


Together we organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery; and we help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace, and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.

–Tony Kushner, afterword to Angels in America: Perestroika

In a recent New Republic Online review (7.13.05), theatre critic Lee Siegel wrote, “In truth, there’s little that theatre can do, even in the most extreme times, to achieve that golden chimera of the activist’s imagination.” And in a Wall Street Journal editorial (6.6.05), Terry Teachout, after observing that conservatives just don’t write plays, commented, “Any work of art that seeks to persuade an audience to take some specific form of external action, political or otherwise, tends to be bad. But the line is not a bright one, and it is possible to make good, even great art that is intended to serve as the persuasive instrument of an exterior purpose.”         

            This semester we will pursue a specific question: How successful have twentieth-century performances been at achieving desired political effects on local or national levels? Obviously, this is a difficult question to answer empirically. As Baz Kershaw notes in the introduction to The Politics of Performance (1992), “Any attempt to prove that this kind of performance efficacy is possible, let alone probable, is plagued by analytical difficulties and dangers.” Yet, we will see what kinds of measure are available as we read, discuss, and perform twentieth-century radical performances. With the word “radical,” I aim to describe performances that attempt to get at the “roots” of social practices and ideologies in order to effect progressive social change.

            We will begin with a brief introduction to performance studies, a complex, emerging field that incorporates the methods and insights of many disciplines, including anthropology, history, visual art, textual studies, philosophy, and drama. At a time when, in certain academic circles, the possibility of meaningful action is questioned and notions of subjectivity have been deeply troubled, performance has proven an enabling device for theorizing some kind of needed agency. Next, we will consider Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre (predicated on not only the possibility but the necessity of action) and the impact of his theories on twentieth-century theatre, primarily but not exclusively American performances focused on liberation struggles—for people living under foreign occupation, workers, women, Chicano/as, and African Americans. We will study a range of international theatre collectives, concentrating on the developments of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, as well as expressionistic theatre, documentary theatre, and performance art.

            In other words, we will be reading a lot of plays and encountering a wide-range of theatre practices—diverse in form, content, philosophy—that will allow us to think broadly about space and silence, experience and aesthetics, play and politics.


Classroom Atmosphere

The English classroom can be a site of engagement with the world—in all its complexity, beauty, pain. It is a place where words and our interaction with words compel us to rethink what we think we know. It should not be easy, nor should it always comfortable. Because I am interested in how literature can change, not simply reflect, realities, my classes move back and forth between texts and worlds, theories and practices. I try to select literature that is formally sophisticated, socially meaningful, and politically charged. My hope is that our discussions will not be narrowly focused or limited in any way, that we will pursue vibrant, respectful, and sincere questions about, to speak in the old style, the human condition.




On our listserve, everyone will post at least six responses (approximately 500 words each, approximately every other week) to our readings in a particular week. In any given response, you obviously do not need to touch on everything you have read. Choose one idea or question to focus on. Pace your responses throughout the semester and try to post by at least 4PM on Tuesday, so we all have a chance to read the responses before we meet. Our listserve can also serve for follow-up discussions and announcements.



There will be two 10-page essays. One will be a critical or theoretical argument of the traditional sort. The other can be the same, or it can be an original performance, a performative essay (Peggy Phelan provides one model for this kind of writing). Or, if there is enough communal interest, you can opt to participate in a staged production. I will collect brief proposals for each essay/performance about two weeks before the due date.



Everyone will be in two performance groups. Each group will collaborate on a ten-minute performance that engages with our week’s reading. Performances are ungraded, informal, and great fun. Feel free to rearrange the classroom, incorporate the audience, bring in props, costumes, music, etc. You do not need to memorize anything (though we’ll all be impressed if you do). Most importantly, your performance should provide us with a certain take on a play, performance, or theory. I encourage groups to think of a critical question that you want to pose through the performance. Usually groups meet at least once outside of class to prepare.



This class will strengthen your ability to think—to question, analyze, reflect, dispute, and reason. Dialogue is essential to this process. There will be a variety of ways to participate: providing feedback to performers, asking questions of one another, reading from your written responses, and responding to our texts. It will not be possible to receive an A in this class if you never speak in class. If you truly have difficulty doing this, please make an appointment early in the semester to speak with me, and we will come up with an alternate arrangement.


Grade Breakdown

Two Essays                              60%

Participation/Performances        20%

Six Responses                           20%


Required Texts (available at WVU Bookstore and online bookstores)

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed

Amiri Baraka, Dutchman and The Slave Ship

Tony Kushner, Homebody / Kabul

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage

Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty

Adam P. Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy, Sleep Deprivation Chamber

Tim Miller, Body Blows

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit and Other Plays

Sophie Treadwell, Machinal

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Exonerated

Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends

Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus


Recommended Plays and Performances:

Karen Finley, Shock Treatment

Philip Kan Gotanda, Yankee Dawg You Die

Moses Kaufman, The Laramie Project

Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play; TopDog/Underdog; Imperceptible

            Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom

Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight and Fires in the Mirror

Guillermo Verdecchia and Daniel Brooks, The Noam Chomsky Lectures

Howard Zinn, Emma (available at the WVU bookstore)


Available on E-Reserve (http://ereserves.lib.wvu.edu; username: ryan2; password

            580) Note: Articles are listed alphabetically online by author’s or editor’s

            last name

W.B. Worthen, “Disciplines of the Text: Sites of Performance.” Performance Studies

            Reader. Ed. Henry Bial. London: Routledge, 2004. 10-24.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Performance Studies.” Performance Studies Reader.


Dwight Conquergood. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.”

            Performance Studies Reader. 311-322.

Baz Kershaw, introduction to The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as

            Cultural Intervention. London: Routledge, 1992

Selections from Brecht on Theatre. Ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill

            and Wang, 1964.

Tony Kushner. Interview with David Savran, Speaking on Stage: Interviews with

            Contemporary American Playwrights. Ed. Philip Kolin. 291-313.

Maria Irene Fornes. Interview with Una Chauduri. Speaking On Stage. 98-114.

Selections from Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, and Activism. Eds. Mady Schutzman

            and Jan Cohen-Cruz. London: Routledge, 1994. Introduction 1-7

Selections from Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theatre. Eds. Jeanne Colleran

            and Jenny Spencer. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Richard Schechner, “Invasions Friendly and Unfriendly: The Dramaturgy of Direct

            Theatre.” Critical Theory and Performance. Eds. Janelle Reinelt and Joseph Roach. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992: 88-106

Douglas McDermott, “The Workers’ Laboratory Theatre: Archetype and Example.”

            Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1930.

            Eds. Bruce McConachie and Daniel Friedman. Wesport, CN: Greenwood P,

            1985. 121-142.

Henry J. Elam, Jr., chapter from Taking It to the Streets: the Social Protest Theatre of

            Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.

Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, Introduction and chapter from Teatro Campesino: Theatre in

            the Chicano Movement. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.

Peggy Phelan, chapter from Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London:

            Routledge, 1993. (“The ontology of performance: representation without            



Recommended Theory and Criticism:

J.L. Austin. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Herbert Blau. Take Up the Bodies: Theatre at the Vanishing Point. Urbana: U of Illinois

            P, 1982.

Herbert Blau. “Universals of Performance; or amortizing play” in By Means of

            Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Eds. Richard            
            Schechner and Willa Appel. Cambridge UP, 1990. 250-272.

Elaine Brousseau. “Personalizing the Political in The Noam Chomsky Lectures” in

            Staging Resistance.

Marvin Carlson. Performance: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 1996

            [Review by Shannon Jackson in Theatre Journal 49.3 (1997), available on

            Project Muse]

Sue-Ellen Case. Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre.

            Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Randall. Berkely: U of

            California P, 1984.

Kate Davy, “From Lady Dick to Ladylike: The Work of Holly Hughes.” Acting Out:

            Feminist Performances. Eds. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan. Ann Arbor:

            U of Michigan P, 1993. 55-84.

Elin Diamond. “The Violence of “We”: Politicizing Identification.” Critical

            Theory and Performance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Jill Dolan. Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1988/91.

Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of

            Western Art. New York: Penguin 1998.

Michael Hatt. “Race, Ritual, and Responsibility: Performativity and the Southern

            lynching” Performing the Body / Performing the Text. Eds. Amelia Jones                               
            and Andrew Stephenson. London: Routledge, 1999.

Jose Esteban Muňoz. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.”

            Women and Performance 8.2 (1996) 5-16.

Alan Reed. Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. London:

            Routledge, 1993.

Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, eds. Critical Theory and Performance.

            Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Joseph Roach. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia

            UP, 1996.

Richard Schechner. Performance Theory. London: Routledge, 1988.


Recommended Websites and Links

PBS on Political Theatre

Lydia Sargeant, “Humor, Theatre, and Social Change

Political art and critical commentary, including reviews of recent plays

Guerilla Girls

Junebug Productions

Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School



Optional Video Viewings at the Downtown Library Media Center: 7PM

Mon., Sept. 19:         Zoot Suit

Mon., Oct. 3:            The Dutchman

Mon., Oct 24:           Samuel Beckett Documentary



            ***Texts available on e-reserve


August 24


Lee Siegel, The New Republic

Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal


Introduction to Performance Studies


August 31

            Sign Up for Performance Groups


***W.B. Worthen, “Disciplines of the Text: Sites of Performance.” [under “Bial” on


***Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Performance Studies.”

***Dwight Conquergood. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.”

***Baz Kershaw, introduction to The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as

            Cultural Intervention


Rec: Peter Brooks, “On Difficulty, the Avante-Garde, and Critical Moribundity.” Just

            Being Difficult: Academic Writing in the Public Arena. Eds. Jonathan Culler and

            Kevin Lamb. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. 129-138.


Epic Theatre and the Spect-actor


September 7

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage

***Selections from Brecht on Theatre. (“The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre”;

            “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”; “Interview with an Exile,” “Theatre for             
            Pleasure, or Theatre for Instruction”; “The Street Scene”; “From the Mother 
            Courage Model)

***Baz Kershaw, Introduction, The Politics of Performance

Chapter from Joseph Chaikin, Presence of the Actor. New York: Atheneum Press, 1972.



Rec Video: From Brecht to Beckett


September 14

Tony Kushner, Homebody / Kabul

***Kushner, Interview with David Savran, Speaking On Stage


Available on Project Muse

Julia A. Walker, “Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the

            Rearticulation of Human Presence.” Yale Journal of Criticism 16.1                             
            (2003): 149-175.

Kushner Interview at Salon, “Coming Out as a Socialist”



     Video Option at the Downtown Library: Mon., Sept. 19 at 7PM: Zoot Suit


September 21

Valdez, Zoot Suit


Available on EBSCO Host

Mark Pizzato, “Brechtian and Aztec Violence in Valdez’s Zoot Suit.” Journal of Popular

            Film & Television 26.2 (1998).


***Henry J. Elam, Jr., chapter from Taking It to the Streets

***Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, introduction and chapter from Teatro Campesino


September 28

            Proposal for First Essay/Performance Due

Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends

Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty


***Douglas McDermott, “The Workers’ Laboratory Theatre: Archetype and Example.”

***Josephine Lee, “Pity and Terror as Public Acts: Reading Feminist Politics in the Plays

            of Maria Irene Fornes.”

***Fornes, Interview with Una Chauduri. Speaking On Stage.


Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory / Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist

            Criticism.” Drama Review 32.1 (1988): 82-94. [handout]


Rec: Daniel Friedman, “A Brief Description of the Workers’ Theatre Movement of the             
            Thirties.” Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1930.

            Eds. McConachie and Friedman. Westport, CN: Greenwood P, 1985. 111-120.



Theatre Collectives and Direct Action: Rehearsal for Revolution


     Video Option at the Downtown Library: Mon., Oct 3 at 7PM: Dutchman


October 5

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Amiri Baraka, The Dutchman

Baraka, “Revolutionary Theatre” [handout]


Available on Project Muse:

Wilson, “The Ground On Which I Stand.” Callaloo 20.3 (1998): 493-503.


Available on EBSCO Host

Lloyd Richards, “Lloyd Richards: Reflections from the Playwrights’ Champion.”

            Interview with Caroline R. Raymond. The Drama Review 47.2 (2003).


October 12

            First Essay Due

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Foreword, Introduction, 83-190. Look at page

            38 and handout on Aristotle

***Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, and Activism. Introduction 1-7

***Michael Taussig and Richard Schechner, “Boal in Brazil, France, the USA: An

            Interview with Augusto Boal.” Playing Boal. 17-32

***Jan Cohen-Cruz, “Mainstream or Margin?: US Activist Performance and the

            Theatre of the Oppressed.” Playing Boal. 110-123.

***Philip Auslander. “Boal, Blau, and Brecht: The Body.” Playing Boal. 124-133.



October 19

***John Bell, “Beyond the Cold War: Bread and Puppet Theatre and the New

            World Order.” Staging Resistance. 31-53.

Maria de Cenzo and Susan Bennett. “Women, Popular Theatre, and Social

            Action: Interviews with Cynthia Grant and the Sistren Theatre Collective.”            
            Melus 23.1 (1992): 72-94. [handout]

Max Stafford-Clark, “Against Pessimism.” Theatre in Crisis? Performance

            Manifestos for a New Century. Eds. Maria M. Delgado and Caridad Svich.             
            Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. 82-88. [handout]

Michael Rohd, selections from Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope

            is Vital Training Manuel. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. [Preface xv-xiv; 97-111; 138-140] [handout]

***Richard Schechner, “Invasions Friendly and Unfriendly: The Dramaturgy of Direct



Expressionistic / Imagistic / Experimental / or, PragmaticTheatre


     Video Option at the Downtown Library: Mon., Oct. 24  at 7PM: Beckett Documentary


October 26

Sophie Treadwell, Machinal

Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Carey Perloff, “Three Women and a Mound: directing Happy Days.” Directing

            Beckett. Ed. Lois Oppenheim. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 161-169.

Ilan Ronen, “Waiting for Godot as Political Theatre.” Directing Beckett. 239-249.



November 2

Adam Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy, Sleep Deprivation Chamber

Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus



Available on EBSCO Host

Jean Young, “The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in

            Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus. African American Review 31.4 (1997): 699-708.


Available on EBSCO Host

Kushner, “The Art of the Difficult.” Civilization 4.4 1997


Rec: Greg Miller, “The Bottom of Desire in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus.” Modern Drama

            45.1 (2002): 125-137.


Documentary Theatre


November 9

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Exonerated


Available on Project Muse

Dwight Conquergood, “Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death

            Penalty.” Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002): 339-367.


Performance Art


November 16

            Second Proposal Due


Gomez-Peňa, New World Border: Introduction i-iii and Biographical Note;

            “Freefalling” 1-3; New World Border, 20-48; Chronicle 80-107. (handout)

Tim Miller, Body Blows [Foreword, Introduction, Golden States, My Queer Body, Glory


***Janelle Reinelt, “Notes for a Radical Democratic Theatre: Productive Crises

            and the Challenge of Indeterminacy” Staging Resistance:  283-300.

“Canon and Curriculum: An Interview with Paul Lauter.” Critics at Work:

            Interviews 1993-2003. Ed. Jeffrey J. Williams. New York: New York UP, 2004. [handout]


Thanksgiving Break


November 30

Hughes, Introduction to Clit Notes and “Clit Notes” [handout]


***Peggy Phelan, chapter from Unmarked: The Politics of Performance.


Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in

            Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performance Studies Reader. 154-165.



Concluding Thoughts and Performances

December 7: Second Essay due December 9 by noon



Local Theatre Announcements


MAC Theatre: Edward Albee, The American Dream and Zoo Story

Aug 25, 26, 27 at 8PM

Aug 28 at 2PM


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