To Catch the Conscience of a Nation: Occupy Wall Street's Inherent Theatricality Is Bolstered by Artistry from Cadres of the Committed

By Wallenberg, Christopher | American Theatre, April 2012 | Go to article overview

To Catch the Conscience of a Nation: Occupy Wall Street's Inherent Theatricality Is Bolstered by Artistry from Cadres of the Committed


Wallenberg, Christopher, American Theatre


IF you tuned in to cable news last fall, you may have gotten the impression that the Occupy Wall Street movement was a freak-filled circus sideshow, a bunch of homeless HR Hi people living in tents, a loud and unsanitary public nuisance, a protest without a coherent message, or all of the above.

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But if you were paying even casual attention, you learned that this decentralized yet powerful movement has managed to shift the national conversation from Tea Party-stoked fears about the debt ceiling to the crises of chronic joblessness and growing income inequality. While Occupy Wall Street's mantra, "We are the 99 percent," resonated strongly with many Americans, the movement's messages were also communicated by striking and often playful images--from, the ubiquitous giant Lady Liberty puppet, to the money-sucking squid dressed as a Goldman Sachs spokesperson, to the movement's first poster of a (lancer pirouetting on top of the Wall Street bull. Witness, too, an array of simple but moving dramatic flourishes: the people's microphone, in which a protester's words are echoed to a larger group; the HIV/AIDS "die-ins" at Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park; the disruption of a huge foreclosures sale at a Brooklyn courthouse, using music and performance; and the meta-spectacle of real-life Occupy activists storming a fake Occupy encampment created for an episode of "Law & Order: SVU."

Indeed, creative resistance has become central to the Occupy movement--just as it has been in countless movements for social change throughout history, from the powerful tactics of ACT UP protesters during the height of the AIDS crisis (chaining themselves to the VIP balcony of the New York Stock Exchange), to the theatrical creativity of the civil rights and antiwar activists of the '60s, to the mass-choreographed labor strikes of the early 20th century.

"Art and cultural resistance have to be part of the movement to help make that point--I think that's how you capture the world's attention. I mean, the play was the thing that I lam let used to capture the attention of the king," says author and activist Benjamin Shepard, whose book examining the liberating role of public space, The Beach Beneath the Streets, helped inspire an Occupy Broadway event at a Midrown Manhattan plaza in early December. "These theatrical images create an urgency that helps people understand issues on a visceral level."

OW'S supporter Mike Daisey, the monologuist and raconteur, echoes Shepard: "The idea of creative resistance is a vital one, because resistance needs different paths. If your only way of resisting is violent, things don't tend to work out long-term; violent resistance tends to consume itself. And if your only way of resisting is nonviolent and passive, the people doing the act of dispersing you, they learn ways to adapt to that. Art and theatre is actually a very effective way to connect with other humans in a space. That's the heart of what theatre is."

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While the OWS movement has spread to U.S. cities large and small, its roots can be traced to international protest tactics. Indeed, when the anti-consumerist magazine Adjusters first put out its call-to-action on its website for people to take to take to the streets and "occupy Wall Street" on Sept. 17, the announcement referenced Egypt's Arab Spring uprising, exclaiming, "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" While Occupy had more homegrown forebears--like the massive Wisconsin protests in early 2011 by public employee unions defending their collective bargaining rights--Occupy is simultaneously viewed as part of a worldwide labor and human rights struggle that's shining a light on the inequities of unfettered global capitalism.

Despite the movement's showmanship, the New York theatre community (particularly its larger institutional theatres) has seemed hesitant to get involved. Nevertheless, in early December--just a few weeks after protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park--both individual theatre artists and some downtown companies dipped their toes in the water, teaming up with Occupy activists for a creative direct-action event smack in the middle of Broadway. …

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