On Theatre, Creating Art, and a Changing World

10:14 AM Amanda Prahl 2 Comments

The day after the election, a friend of mine - a fellow artist - posted on Facebook a list of adjectives describing the art they would no longer consider acceptable. Among those adjectives were "cool," "cutting-edge," and others, but the one that bothered me was "beautiful." I saw similar sentiments repeated across my social media as much of my extended community cycled through fear, anger, confusion, and even rebellion. "Beauty," it seemed, was no longer something to strive for, no longer something worthy. As 2017 kicks off and the prospect of immense change looms, it's time to have a discussion about the role of art and its creators going forward.

Implicit in the idea that "beautiful" isn't enough is the idea that beauty is somehow a shallow concept. And, indeed, that's something we teach our children, isn't it? "Beauty is only skin deep." "Don't judge on appearances." But there's another saying we learn, and it's often used in a strange manner contrary to its actual meaning.

"True beauty lies within."

Photo credit: Etsy (LoveliesShop)
Think about that for a moment. Beauty itself is not a shallow concept, but rather our perception of it can be shallow or "skin-deep." But real, genuine beauty is something that lies deep within, something that is much more complex than what the style of the day dictates. It's a state of being that suggests wonder and humanity and complexity. And that's the kind of beauty that our art needs to be striving for in the days ahead.

Film and television, music and literature all have their roles to play, but I want to talk about theatre in particular, because of its unique ability to be right there with its audiences, to have an immediacy of connection, to have a without-a-net sense of live daring. There's no way to forget that these are real people because they're right there, breathing the same air as you, maybe making a mistake or reacting to something you as an audience did. Talk to any "theatre kid" (and by this I don't just mean eager Hamilton-obsessed teenagers; once a theatre kid, always a theatre kid, even if you're in your seventies), and they'll tell you about the magic of theatre. It's a liminal space, a place of in-betweens, and - this is the important part - that's where transformation happens.

Photo courtesy Pinterest
How does beauty have anything to do with this, you say? I believe this is twofold: that the multilayered nature of beauty can allow us as artists to convey messages that otherwise would get lost or ignored, and that beauty in the face of ugliness is itself an act of defiance and rebellion.

Theatre has a unique place in that it is both high art and popular art. I have long made my views clear that I believe firmly in the importance of theatre that straddles that line, because if art is provocative and interesting but no one sees it because it's too inaccessible (literally or intellectually), what happens to its message then? We cannot underestimate the power of popular theatre to set trends and spark interest, particularly among younger fans. We have a generation of young people who will come of age with a fascination for complex American history because of Hamilton. Among ardent fans, nuanced arguments about history, politics, and American institutions erupt, and understanding of those institutions (#HamiltonElectors, anyone?) is currency. Now imagine what those young fans will be like as adults: educated not through force-fed history lessons they'll promptly forget, but through something they sought out on their own.

As a playwright, scholar/writer, and audience member, I often notice a "spoonful of sugar" approach to controversial, layered topics in popular art. That is to say, a highly opinionated or political idea embedded within layers of story has the ability to distance audiences and help them let their guards down to explore and question beliefs. If I asked an average person to come with me and see a feminist play about women fighting a charming fascist dictator who manipulated his people into blind devotion, how likely would they be to enjoy it, or to come in without strong preconceived opinions about the content? But thousands of people of various political and cultural backgrounds around the world daily see this story and love it, all because it's dressed up as an emerald-colored fantasy musical.
Photo credit: Tristam Kenton for The Guardian
There's a lot of discussion about the role of police in society and their duality as flawed humans and decisive authorities, which would make any discussion of this complexity likely to invite controversy or only attract those with specific points. But one of the world's most popular pieces of theatre of all time has as a primary character a policeman who is both sympathetic and antagonistic, who struggles with judgment versus mercy, and whose story arc outlines the complexity of this debate.

A beautiful place setting invites people to the table, and once they are there, it's up to them. Beauty is not a hindrance to provocative, illuminating works of art, but rather an invitation to see them without prejudice.

More than anything, though, we face uncertain times ahead. The arts community, among others, has legitimate concerns about our future, our prospects, and even, to a degree, our freedom. There is so much ugliness in the world today, with the divided society we live in providing a never-ending cycle of vitriol that can depress even the brightest optimist. It is by giving in to that darkness and despair, however, that evil wins. If fiction (and history) has taught us anything, it's that evil feeds on loss of hope and light. It wants that ugliness so it can continue its cruel work. It is our task to keep the light on.

Photo credit: The Ghostlight Players
With that in mind, here is my pledge as an artist. I do not ask others to do the same; there are as many types of art as there are artists in the world. Some are best suited to fiercely political, unambiguous work, and I applaud them. Some are best suited to escapism, and I applaud them. I applaud any artists who keep to their visions.

But I promise to bring beauty into this world with the work I create. I promise to not let the dark side of the world slide or to brush over it or prettify it, but I promise to defy those who would plunge anyone into darkness and ugliness. Beauty in the face of ugliness is an act of defiance against that ugliness and an act of hope, and that is what we need.


  1. Yes! I'm ready to rebel with you by creating beauty!

    1. I know I can always count on you! Let's do this :)