We all love a good theater performance. It can make us laugh, move us to tears and convey important messages about life and culture. But are theater and performance good strategies to affect social change? To advocate for a better society? Our guest thinks so. He’s a performer, writer and educator who uses serious play and theater to help change people’s minds and change society for the better.
Larry Bogad, professor at the University of California-Davis, founding Director of the Center for Tactical Performance based in Berkeley, California, and author of the books, Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule & Social Movements, and Tactical Performance: The Theory and Practice of Serious Play
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Serious Play: Using tactical performance as protest
Gary Price: Everyone loves the theatre – from the ancient Greeks in Athens to Broadway audiences today, people throughout the world enjoy a good, well-performed drama or comedy. But is entertainment the only purpose of theatrical performance? Can we use it to make a difference in, say, politics? Larry Bogad, who has been involved in multiple groups that use theatre to advance social movements, is one of the many who would say, “You bet!”
Larry Bogad: The idea is that, of course, in activist movements for human rights, civil rights, labor rights, etc. the issues are very serious, and we’re very serious about what we’re doing, but there may be an advantage creatively to be playful – to be surprising – as we try to reach out to people, recruit people to join or to learn about the issue. And that doesn’t mean you’re not taking the issue seriously; it’s just that play is part of the aesthetic, it’s part of the strategy and it’s a way to be charismatic.
Price: Bogad is a professor at the University of California-Davis and author of the books, Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule & Social Movements, and Tactical Performance: The Theory and Practice of Serious Play. In his book he explains why tactical performance, or “serious play”, is used.
Bogad: Tactical performance can be a sort of voice amplifier, or even a force multiplier, for an organization or social movement campaign. When you surprise them, when you do something that’s either entertaining or just symbolically provocative, I think you can get more results for your effort. When you challenge people a little bit with some ridiculous irony, like the group Billionaires for Bush, which was a great satirical, street theatre, meme campaign that went on for years under Bush, or a group called A Thousand Coffins, which, on the other side of the coin, were very serious in what they did, but they were creatively challenging – they marched with a thousand flag-covered coffins around in the street to protest the war – you can both reach more people through the media, you’re creating images that are mediagenic but tell your story in a way beyond the usual. And I think you earn a moment by being surprising and creative where people say, “Oh wait a minute, I might’ve normally tuned you out if you were just chanting the same old chants and handing out the same old flyers, I might’ve just crossed the street and avoided you, but because this is interesting, I may actually pay a little attention.
Price: Irony definitely plays an important role in tactical performance. Although a tricky device that can potentially backfire or be misinterpreted, it is extremely useful when used effectively. When Bogad worked with a group producing a parody of the New York Times that showed all the things they wished to see in the world, they named the group something that the Times would think twice about getting into a legal battle with.
Bogad: The name of the limited liability corporation that, collected of the little donations over time in secret to make this happen, was called The Spirit of Free Speech in America, and the reason being, we just said, “Geez, they’re probably not going to sue us; this is a work of satire and parody, but if they do, the name of the court case for the rest of history of the world, and in the media coverage of it as it goes on in the courtroom at the time, will be The New York Times vs. The Spirit of Free Speech in America. And that’s sort of what the story we wanted to tell, just in case. So it was almost a tripwire, you know? I don’t know if that affected their decision not to do anything about it, but they just sort of acknowledged that we had done this paper and let it go. And I think that’s part of it, is to be playful but to be a little tactical too and think ahead a step or two and think about possible responses from your – I don’t even like to say opponents – from your dance partners in the struggle. These are ways to surprise people, engage people, get them thinking a little bit, and they get the nice experience of figuring out for themselves exactly what you’re doing.
Price: Bogad says that the most satisfying reaction from an event is when a passerby or the media stops to watch, laugh, and ask questions. Luckily, he’s never experienced a hostile response to a performance. However, when it comes to the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a group that protests while dressed and playing like clowns, the public may not know how to react.
Bogad: The idea was to have a crew of activists who were trained equally in nonviolent civil disobedience, clowning and group improv performance, and that we would find ways to both be really mediagenic and… when there’s 150 clowns in the street and they actually are doing something organized, that’s disturbing – it’s attention-getting. And so we did find that we would be able to get the crowds together and get the media onto us, and from that position, in that absurd place, to then make an actual, serious point, once we had peoples’ attention, of the issues we were going after. It was also about changing the paradigm, a bit, of protest and getting outside of the clichéd behaviors both by the police and the protestors, ramping down the violence a little bit so that we would have a chance to tell our story. So, we did sometimes really disarm, not literally, by figuratively we disarmed the police that were coming in to kind of clear the streets and just knock everyone off the streets. Well, they didn’t know what to do with the clowns. We were not entering into that whole interaction; we were just very playful.
Price: With any project, Bogad feels that there is always room for improvement, which is why reflection and planning are two of the most important steps in creating the best and most effective performance possible. Although some events are very spur of the moment, history shows that a practiced plan can change the world.
Bogad: When you look at something more serious and important, like the Civil Rights’ Movement, they practiced behind the scenes for their lunch counter sit-ins to the point of really role-playing it out, saying, “We’re going to be attacked by white, racist mobs; we need to be prepared.” And part of the behind-the-scenes preparation for these very famous actions were they would take turns screaming, yelling at each other, pushing each other, attacking each other, so that when it happened in, quote-on-quote, “real life”, they were ready for it, and they responded only in the ways that they wanted to. So they had this great discipline and this great understanding that it was their responsibility to do a sociodrama that was really well prepared. That garnered international attention for their cause, so that’s the advantage of really great discipline and preparation.
Price: Location and law enforcement are just two factors that can restrict peaceful political protests and make planning crucial. Bogad says that there are some events he’s done in locations like Iceland that he would never try in the states.
Bogad: They had just started putting security cameras in public places in Iceland. This is like 2008 or so? They were just starting the surveillance state there, and people were protesting it, people were not sure how they felt about it because it’s a new thing for them – something we’ve given up on, basically – and we did something again, like, you can actually push it further. I made some thought bubble signs that were sticky, and a guy younger than me, and more agile, would shimmy up the pole and pull the surveillance camera up so it’s aiming at the sky and then he put my little thought bubble next to the thing, and it showed that the surveillance camera was actually thinking, “I’d rather look at the stars than spy on people.”
Price: Bogad says that he talks to citizens of the country that he’s going to be performing in, and this educates and helps him adjust his plans to the cultural terrain. Even educating yourself on certain home-grown regulations, like New York’s Mask Law, can be useful.
Bogad: There’s an old law in the books from 1845 that says, you know, if you have three or four people together wearing a mask, that’s illegal. Unless it’s part of a masquerade ball. That just shows you what year it came from. And we’re doing a lot of street theatre for immigrant labor rights, and we’re wearing these festive costumes. We’re doing lucha libre wrestling in the streets, working with labor unions and trying to call attention to the mistreatment of immigrant workers in the city and exposing sweatshops and things like that, and we’re doing these great, big street theatre events, but this old law – and this is an example of the kind of thing that can happen, as absurd as it sounds – this old law is dusted off and is used to start arresting street theatre protestors who were doing professional wrestling kind of shtick in the streets. And clearly that’s not what the intent of the law was, it’s not appropriate, but you still had people getting arrested, spending a night in jail, having to deal with a whole court case before getting exonerated in the end, and it just was a technique to increase the cost of protest, you know, of creativity.
Price: In his other book, Electoral Guerilla Theatre, Bogad writes about people around the world who run for public office as a prank, but for good reason.
Bogad: There’s a wonderful campaign in Australia. Pauline Pantsdown basically was looking at, wow, there’s Pauline Hanson, was this real politician who was really xenophobic against foreign immigrants coming to the country, especially from Asia, and she was really against aboriginal rights, etc. What this artist did was he said, I’m going to change my name legally to Pauline Pantsdown – sounds like her, Pauline Hanson – I’m going to wear the same dresses as her, same makeup, she got a great wig that matched, and just ran for office, got on the ballot and did this prankster campaign. Took it a step further and digitized Hanson’s words from TV and the radio and made these hit dance songs using Hanson’s words against her, changing the order of the words, making songs that are still fun to listen to now, and changing her words around so that they make fun of her politics. This was a great campaign; it got a huge amount of attention – no, Pauline Pantsdown did not get elected. I don’t think Pauline Pantsdown wanted to get elected – but definitely caused so much of a circus and so much overreaction from Hanson’s campaign that Hanson lost her seat in Parliament.
Price: Pantsdown’s technique is one that Bogad feels could really make a difference in America as well.
Bogad: I think we have one very special person right now running for president who I think is ripe for that kind of intervention, and what’s interesting about Trump is he also has a very thin skin, so I think we would overreact to being satirized in a way that could just be really great for the other side. So, I could totally see that happening.
Price: Larry Bogad has even more stories and studies in his books, Tactical Performance and, Electoral Guerilla Theatre available now. He invites listeners to visit his website at LMBogad.com to find out more about him and to read his blog. For more about all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.