Theater’s Intersections with Politics and Social Issues

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — On February 5th, a staged reading of Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco took place in the Tang Museum at Skidmore College.

This reading was performed without blocking, with the actors reading straight from the script, and was produced under the title of “the Rhinoceros Project.” This title encompasses a larger scope, in which colleges and small theaters across the country planned on putting on productions of the Ionesco play around the time of the inauguration in order to protest Trump’s presidency.

The reading was followed by a talk-back led by Joseph Cermatori, a professor in the English department at Skidmore. Cermatori brought up the idea of the project in his English course, “Drama,” following the election. When asked why he thought of participating in the project he stated, “I only mentioned it to the students in EN 215 (Drama), because there was a clear sense of dejection and uncertainty in the classroom following the election, and it seemed like a possible outlet through which those feelings could be turned to productive use, to begin a discussion about our current political situation.”

Zoe Lesser, a Sophomore English and Theater major produced the project along with Junior Rebecca Rovezzi. Lesser explained that the play contains themes of mob mentality and normalization, as depicted in a small town in provincial France, where slowly, but surely, the townspeople turn into rhinoceroses. The play was written in 1959 in response to the rise of Fascism as well as Communism, both leading up to, and after World War II.

In spite of the play being writer over fifty years ago, Lesser stated that the themes of the play are still “relevant in the sense that the people you know, or your neighbors, or your endearing distant relative could end up supporting a fascist dictator without knowing it. It also shows how quickly we can normalize such extreme political views.”

Actors in Rehearsal for the Staged Reading of the Rhinoceros Project at Skidmore College. Photo provided by Zoe Lesser

When asked about how theater can relate to politics and social issues, Graham Cook, a Sophomore theater major and philosophy minor, who played the protagonist, Berenger, in the project, claimed “theater and art in general is a political act. Human beings are political animals, and most of what we do is politically charged whether we know it or not. When one gets up on a stage, and tells a human story honestly, one is evoking emotional responses from everyone in the room that changes how they may see a problem or issue.”

On this same topic, Michael San Roman, a Senior Theater major and political science minor at Skidmore, and the director of the project said “any platform is a place to be heard. In political science we talk about the performativity of power- it’s not just something that you’re given, it’s performed and its reciprocative with an audience, so I think any place where someone is given the freedom to speak is a place where change can be made.”

The Rhinoceros Project was inspired by the Lysistrata Project, a nationwide series of productions of Lysistrata by Aristophanes that began in 2004 to protest the war in Iraq.

Cermatori, who worked on this project when he was an undergrad student said that the project was an important moment for him, “because I’d never seen a theater project take shape so quickly and so autonomously, with the students leading the effort completely, and it exposed me at an early age to the importance of self-organizing.” He continued by stating “the project seemed to accomplish its goals, which were relatively simple: to protest, to raise awareness, and to contribute to campus debate about the war.”

While discussing how theater can be used to aid social change, Cook also mentioned how not all theater can be used to make a strong political point. “Theater can be used directly to criticize a policy, a problem, or a political act either by writing an original piece to critique the political, or by adapting a piece to make it more pertinent to whatever modern political problem one has — it’s tricky though. Sometimes the messages can be skewed or can be diluted by trying to tackle too many things too quickly. And sometimes, a piece of theater can actually do the exact opposite of what it was intended to do.”

Discussion Following the Staged Reading of Rhinoceros. Photo provided by Joseph Cermatori

In discussing works of theater with the intention of furthering social change, both Cook and Lesser brought up The Orphan Sea by Caridad Svich, the blackbox production in the Skidmore theater department last semester. Lesser described the production as one that attempted to bring cultures together and address Trump’s idea of building a wall, “they put walls up on the stage and the idea was like ‘transcending borders’ and that it doesn’t matter that we’re from different cultures because we all love. I just think that that’s a very vague assessment of what’s happening and the message wasn’t strong enough.”

Cook, who was an actor in the production asserted that “the casting of the show was abysmal and offensive. In short, it was essentialist. When the show was being cast, the director had the intention of creating a multicultural cast to represent the global picture of the world.”

The intention of this colorblind casting was one that Cook thought would be good for the department as the department tends to be “very white.” However, he claims that the director was not looking for talent in colorblind casting, but “went out to find her international cast and pursued people she wanted in her show because of the way they looked. She didn’t cast them based on what they would bring to the show, or their respective talents, she cast them because of their race. This is what I meant when I referred to the casting as ‘essentialist.’”

Last semester, San Roman also directed a new work entitled A More Perfect Union, which was a piece devised from the transcripts of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case, which legalized same-sex marriage.

When asked what the intent behind the project was, San Roman said “the project came out of a real desire to share the court with people, because I think it’s something that feels very closed and hidden, and there’s a lot of things about the court and the justice system themselves that I wanted to know more about, so I decided to make it into a project.” He proceeded to say, “I am someone who identifies as LGBTQ and the case was something that was really groundbreaking, so I felt in terms of subject matter, it was just the correct choice for me right now, in terms of where I’m at and what I’m dealing with in my life.”

After the staged reading of Rhinoceros many of the organizers shared the same sentiment of what to do next in terms of furthering social change with theater. Cermatori expressed this sentiment by vocalizing that “the project will have been most effective if it continues to have an afterlife: if the project participants continue to meet, discuss, and collaborate, or at least continue to think critically about American political life.”