It hasn’t happened to me in a few months, but when I was applying to drama school I got asked over and over again “Why do you want to be an actor?” Every time I would ramble about how important it was to me to do what I loved, and how I knew I would regret it if I never tried to be an actor. One of the most common responses I got to that was “Don’t you want to do something more useful? Like, be a doctor? They actually save people’s lives!” It baffles me that people could suggest that art, and especially theatre, was something powerless, superfluous, and extra. I always tried to explain to those people that I believed that theatre could also change, shape, and even save lives. But when pressed further I found it hard to back up my arguments, and the little voice in my head would always ask “Does it really?” But I knew in my heart then, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt now, that it does. Theatre was made to do just that.
For as long as humans have made art, we have used it to stand up for, promote, and share what we believe in, and it has been revolutionary in its impact. That is easy to forget when the average West End ticket price is £42, and those of us who are lucky enough to have the privilege to enjoy art, live lives of such unprecedented comfort.
Throughout history theatre has been used to sell ideas. It can be propaganda, which – whether it is used for good or bad – has a profound effect on the mindset of a whole community or country. Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V was used as propaganda during World War II to help inspire the British and bolster courage. Meanwhile, Hitler used the film Triumph of the Will to promote his regime.
Propaganda brings people together under a similar viewpoint or mindset, but art can also bring people together without setting out to do so. Most people, when they think about it, can think of a play, concert, movie, painting, or book that they’ve bonded with someone over. I know for sure that I am friends with most of the people I know in part because we have similar tastes in art.
Look at any movement, revolution, or rebellion, however quiet it may have been, throughout history. You will see that they used art – including acting – as another way to make themselves heard. The suffragettes wrote plays and performed them in the early 1900s. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the Red Scare and McCarthyism in America.
I recently finished the Living History project at East 15. We recreated a 1940’s Soviet Gulag and created characters that lived and worked there. During the two weeks that I had the privilege to have this unique experience, art was used innumerable times in ways that were incredibly important. Characters that couldn’t write sent suicide notes, love letters, and threats by drawing pictures. People were forced to sing national anthems they didn’t want to sing and sang different national anthems as a rebellion. People sang to make themselves feel better. Perhaps best of all, a propaganda play was used to start a successful counter-revolution. If that didn’t change the lives of the people involved, I don’t know what would!
Not every piece of art has to be political, revolutionary, or life changing. Not every piece of art should be. We need pure entertainment, we need distraction, we need fun without a deeper meaning sometimes. But art and theatre are inextricably wound up in our lives as humans, and they are not extra, superfluous, or powerless. They are things that knowingly or unknowingly shape our society. And I think that it is part of our duty and job as artists to stand up and speak about what we believe in, tell people the stories that aren’t told, and ask the hard questions. Because people need art, and people will pay attention to it. People will listen to Donald Trump, they will listen to Adolf Hitler, but they will also listen to art.