Sunday, January 22, 2012

Theatre and Social Change

Jane Addams argued in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909) that theatre, however essential to society, has the ability to corrupt children by setting the wrong example of how people solve real world problems.  Young people are often ignorant of the processes that go into life as they have not yet had the required experiences that allow them to mature into adults.  Therefore they make decisions based not on right or wrong but on what is "exciting and appealing to his outward sense, of in his ignorance and foolishness blundering into substances which are filthy and poisonous" (Addams, p. 27)  Addams' argument is based on what she has seen in her work at Hull House.  She views theater as becoming the moral compus of young people.  The "make-believe" in theater does not translate as "make-believe" to a child.  Once they see how their favorite heroes act on stage they may translate those actions into daily life.
"'Theater is literally making the minds of our urban populations today. It is a huge factory of sentiment of character, of points  of honor, of conceptions of conduct, of everything that finally determines the destiny of a nation.  The theater is not only a place of amusement, it is a place of culture, a place where people learn how to think, act and feel.' Seldom, however, do we associate the theater with our plans for civic righteousness, although it has become som important a factor in city life." (Addams, pg. 28)
Addams proposes more public interaction through leagues, social groups and recreational activities in public spaces.  Rather than have kids watch and learn social norms through the mass medium of the day, theater, she thinks they should be out socializing among people their own age in real environments in the urban setting.

While I believe in public space should be available to provide for social groups to come together, theater is a useful tool in harnessing social change and acceptance. Below is a video from TED Talks talking about how theater can be a tool for social change:

This YoutTube clip is from TEDx-Adelaide.  TED Talks is a forum that hosts events around the world to discuss ideas that have the ability to impact and change the world.  The topics range widely and speakers from all walks of life are encouraged to sign up and participate.  Edwin Kemp Attrill is a freelance theater artist, producer and artistic director of ActNow Theater for Social Change.  He was worked as a director and tutor for Urban Myth Theater of Youth, No Strings Attached Theater of Disability, Vitalstatistix and in youth detention centers across SA.   In the video he discusses how we can use theater as a tool to change social behavior.  He argues that it can be used for good and establish acceptance for different view points and beliefs.

Addams seems to be short sited on the good ideas that can be propagated through theater.  Children can find acceptance through normalization of quirky characters.  They can be taught tolerance and acceptance for different ideas and beliefs.  Understanding that this is obviously not the theater that Addams is discussing in the selection, she does not advocate for the ideas that theater might be able to teach kids.  Theater was and is a way to spread ideas through popular culture.  It creates a forum for topics that might be taboo in society to discuss to be discussed in a semi-public forum.  

I argue that theater is good for young people.  Opening young minds to new ideas rather than allowing them to normalize public opinion through socialized organizations leads to maintained social order.  The theater can be a reflection of the weaknesses in society.  It can open up discussion and provide alternative views points that may not be heard through natural society. Without the theater's creative expression, we limit the progressive ideas that make the world a better place.


  1. Agreed. As long as we first situate Addams' critique in the context of early 20th century media formation and dissemination.

    1. According to the excerpt from Addams' book, she doesn't mention any community theater programs in American cities in the early 20th century. I should have done some more research, but do you think there was community theater in the early 20th century? Or is community theater a product of the late 20th and early 21st century societies?

  2. I agree, for that setting Addam's critique is correct and there can be not much of a bad effect from allowing young people to watch theater and learn from it. In those days there were plays that had a moral to the story, and everything with sufficient common sense could learn from it. There was always a lesson to be learnt. Take, for example, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. One could day that the lesson learned is not to be greedy.
    However if we were to translate this into modern day entertainment, this would include not only community theater but also various forms of visual entertainment. So in the same manner can we say then that children can really learn from what the world is about, by choosing role models from the cast of Jersey Shore?