Yes we can!
Yes we did!
Yes we can!
Yes we did!
So went the chant lead by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists and the packed house at the Electric Factory. It was only a few days after the election of Barrack Obama in 2008 and Meloy (along with most of the crowd) were still abuzz with excitement. However, as the chant went on I couldn’t help but notice that here and there a few fans turned around and left the show.
I must confess that at the time it didn’t really bother me. But ever since the fervor that arose in the wake of Mike Pence’s visit to see Hamilton this past weekend, I have been thinking about the exodus of those fans eight years ago.
Let me be clear. My wife and I are theatre people. We both performed from middle school through college and she has worked in professional theatre as a fundraiser ever since. Thus it should come as no surprise that we fundamentally sympathetic to the actors.
The issue for me is not what the cast said (remember, the boos came from the audience, not the actors). Their words were both eloquent and respectful. Indeed, vice president elect Pence has stated that he had no problem with them. Moreover, contrary to what the president elect and others have claimed, the role of theatre (or any art) is not to create a “safe space” or to make people happy. Indeed, it is patently absurd that some of those who previously criticized the idea of “safe space” for overly-sensitive liberal types are now demanding it for themselves. But that’s beside the point. Because this issue is not about the first amendment or being offended, it is about the sacred space between performer and audience.
This space has nothing to do with politics. The piece can be political. When not on stage the actors can be political. But, once that relationship between actor and audience is established, things change. The actor is no longer expressing their personal views but the voice of the character they inhabit. Any politics come from the piece, not the person.
This inherent distance between performer and audience is known as the Fourth Wall. And while a few artists (and Deadpool) make a career out of breaking it, the Fourth Wall is generally respected by both artist and audience alike. And so when it is broken it naturally raises questions.
To be fair, while the performers never broke character to address Mr. Pence, they did use the stage to make a personal statement. And that brings us at last to the real issue… should the stage be turned into the performer’s personal pulpit?
That’s a sticky issue because while we all have the right to free speech and free expression, those of us who perform or preach are called to willingly suspend them for the sake of our vocation. And speaking of pulpits, if Mr. Pence or Mr. Trump were to walk into my church I can’t promise I would be able to resist the opportunity to somehow tailor what I had to say in order to speak directly to them. Indeed, some would argue that if I didn’t I would be negligent in my prophet and moral duty to speak truth to power.
At the end of the day I don’t care that people were offended. They don’t have to listen to Hamilton or The Decemberists ever again. But I do think that those of us who perform need to remember that it is not about us, it is about the art. And that is what we must protect… not people’s feelings, not our ticket sales or attendance, but the sacred space between us and our audience, because without it, our art wouldn’t exist in the first place.