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Why theater is essential to democracy | Oskar Eustis


Theater matters because democracy matters. Theater is the essential
art form of democracy, and we know this because
they were born in the same city. In the late 6th century BC, the idea of Western democracy was born. It was, of course, a very partial and flawed democracy, but the idea that power should stem
from the consent of the governed, that power should flow
from below to above, not the other way around, was born in that decade. And in that same decade, somebody —
legend has it, somebody named Thespis — invented the idea of dialogue. What does that mean, to invent dialogue? Well, we know that
the Festival of Dionysus gathered the entire citizenry of Athens on the side of the Acropolis, and they would listen to music,
they would watch dancing, and they would have stories told
as part of the Festival of Dionysus. And storytelling is much like
what’s happening right now: I’m standing up here, the unitary authority, and I am talking to you. And you are sitting back,
and you are receiving what I have to say. And you may disagree with it,
you may think I’m an insufferable fool, you may be bored to death, but that dialogue is mostly
taking place inside your own head. But what happens if,
instead of me talking to you — and Thespis thought of this — I just shift 90 degrees to the left, and I talk to another person
onstage with me? Everything changes, because at that moment,
I’m not the possessor of truth; I’m a guy with an opinion. And I’m talking to somebody else. And you know what? That other person has an opinion too, and it’s drama, remember,
conflict — they disagree with me. There’s a conflict between
two points of view. And the thesis of that
is that the truth can only emerge in the conflict
of different points of view. It’s not the possession of any one person. And if you believe in democracy,
you have to believe that. If you don’t believe that,
you’re an autocrat who is putting up with democracy. But that’s the basic thesis of democracy, that the conflict of different
points of views leads to the truth. What’s the other thing that’s happening? I’m not asking you to sit back
and listen to me. I’m asking you to lean forward and imagine my point of view — what this looks like and feels like
to me as a character. And then I’m asking you
to switch your mind and imagine what it feels like
to the other person talking. I’m asking you to exercise empathy. And the idea that truth comes
from the collision of different ideas and the emotional muscle of empathy are the necessary tools
for democratic citizenship. What else happens? The third thing really is you, is the community itself, is the audience. And you know from personal experience
that when you go to the movies, you walk into a movie theater,
and if it’s empty, you’re delighted, because nothing’s going to be
between you and the movie. You can spread out, put your legs
over the top of the stadium seats, eat your popcorn and just enjoy it. But if you walk into a live theater and you see that the theater is half full, your heart sinks. You’re disappointed immediately, because whether you knew it or not, you were coming to that theater to be part of an audience. You were coming to have
the collective experience of laughing together, crying together,
holding your breath together to see what’s going to happen next. You may have walked into that theater
as an individual consumer, but if the theater does its job, you’ve walked out with a sense
of yourself as part of a whole, as part of a community. That’s built into the DNA of my art form. Twenty-five hundred years later,
Joe Papp decided that the culture should belong to
everybody in the United States of America, and that it was his job
to try to deliver on that promise. He created Free Shakespeare in the Park. And Free Shakespeare in the Park
is based on a very simple idea, the idea that the best theater,
the best art that we can produce, should go to everybody
and belong to everybody, and to this day, every summer night in Central Park, 2,000 people are lining up to see the best theater
we can provide for free. It’s not a commercial transaction. In 1967, 13 years
after he figured that out, he figured out something else, which is that the democratic
circle was not complete by just giving the people the classics. We had to actually let the people
create their own classics and take the stage. And so in 1967, Joe opened the Public Theater
downtown on Astor Place, and the first show he ever produced
was the world premiere of “Hair.” That’s the first thing he ever did
that wasn’t Shakespeare. Clive Barnes in The Times said
that it was as if Mr. Papp took a broom and swept up all the refuse
from the East Village streets onto the stage at the Public. (Laughter) He didn’t mean it complimentarily, but Joe put it up in the lobby,
he was so proud of it. (Laughter) (Applause) And what the Public Theater did over
the next years with amazing shows like “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered
Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” “A Chorus Line,” and — here’s the most extraordinary
example I can think of: Larry Kramer’s savage cry of rage
about the AIDS crisis, “The Normal Heart.” Because when Joe produced
that play in 1985, there was more information about AIDS in Frank Rich’s review
in the New York Times than the New York Times had published
in the previous four years. Larry was actually changing
the dialogue about AIDS through writing this play, and Joe was by producing it. I was blessed to commission and work
on Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and when doing that play
and along with “Normal Heart,” we could see that the culture
was actually shifting, and it wasn’t caused by the theater, but the theater was doing its part to change what it meant to be gay
in the United States. And I’m incredibly proud of that. (Applause) When I took over Joe’s old job
at the Public in 2005, I realized one of the problems we had
was a victim of our own success, which is: Shakespeare in the Park
had been founded as a program for access, and it was now the hardest ticket
to get in New York City. People slept out for two nights
to get those tickets. What was that doing? That was eliminating
98 percent of the population from even considering going to it. So we refounded the mobile unit and took Shakespeare to prisons,
to homeless shelters, to community centers in all five boroughs and even in New Jersey
and Westchester County. And that program proved something to us
that we knew intuitively: people’s need for theater
is as powerful as their desire for food or for drink. It’s been an extraordinary success,
and we’ve continued it. And then there was yet another barrier
that we realized we weren’t crossing, which is a barrier of participation. And the idea, we said, is: How can we turn theater
from being a commodity, an object, back into what it really is — a set of relationships among people? And under the guidance
of the amazing Lear deBessonet, we started the Public Works program, which now every summer produces these immense Shakespearean
musical pageants, where Tony Award-winning
actors and musicians are side by side with nannies
and domestic workers and military veterans
and recently incarcerated prisoners, amateurs and professionals, performing together on the same stage. And it’s not just a great social program, it’s the best art that we do. And the thesis of it is
that artistry is not something that is the possession of a few. Artistry is inherent
in being a human being. Some of us just get to spend
a lot more of our lives practicing it. And then occasionally — (Applause) you get a miracle like “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel’s extraordinary retelling
of the foundational story of this country through the eyes of the only Founding
Father who was a bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies. And what Lin was doing is exactly what Shakespeare was doing. He was taking the voice of the people,
the language of the people, elevating it into verse, and by doing so, ennobling the language and ennobling the people
who spoke the language. And by casting that show entirely
with a cast of black and brown people, what Lin was saying to us, he was reviving in us our greatest aspirations
for the United States, our better angels of America, our sense of what this country could be, the inclusion that was at the heart
of the American Dream. And it unleashed
a wave of patriotism in me and in our audience, the appetite for which
is proving to be insatiable. But there was another side to that,
and it’s where I want to end, and it’s the last story
I want to talk about. Some of you may have heard
that Vice President-elect Pence came to see “Hamilton” in New York. And when he came in,
some of my fellow New Yorkers booed him. And beautifully, he said, “That’s what freedom sounds like.” And at the end of the show, we read what I feel was a very
respectful statement from the stage, and Vice President-elect Pence
listened to it, but it sparked a certain amount
of outrage, a tweetstorm, and also an internet boycott of “Hamilton” from outraged people who had felt
we had treated him with disrespect. I looked at that boycott and I said,
we’re getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed
this boycott petition, they were never going to see
“Hamilton” anyway. It was never going to come
to a city near them. If it could come,
they couldn’t afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket,
they didn’t have the connections to get that ticket. They weren’t boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue
electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, “Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit
cultural institutions,” I’d be telling you the truth. You’d believe me. We in the culture have done
exactly what the economy, what the educational system,
what technology has done, which is turn our back
on a large part of the country. So this idea of inclusion,
it has to keep going. Next fall, we are sending out on tour a production of Lynn Nottage’s brilliant,
Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat.” Years of research in Redding, Pennsylvania
led her to write this play about the deindustrialization
of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs. We’re taking that play
and we’re touring it to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. We’re partnering with community
organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people
that we’re trying to reach, but that we find ways
to listen to them back and say, “The culture
is here for you, too.” Because — (Applause) we in the culture industry, we in the theater, have no right to say
that we don’t know what our job is. It’s in the DNA of our art form. Our job “… is to hold up,
as ’twere, a mirror to nature; to show scorn her image, to show virtue her appearance, and the very age its form and pressure.” Our job is to try to hold up
a vision to America that shows not only
who all of us are individually, but that welds us back into
the commonality that we need to be, the sense of unity, the sense of whole, the sense of who we are as a country. That’s what the theater is supposed to do, and that’s what we need to try to do
as well as we can. Thank you very much. (Applause)

69 Comments

  1. Danny B Author

    Can’t get enough of ted talks. Whether it’s directly related to my field of work or not I’ve always been able to learn some sort of lesson in all of them.

    Reply
  2. Mike Watkins Jr Author

    The title is a good one in the sense that it catches your attention lol. I’m like wha theater and democracy? So yeah good title

    Reply
  3. Ron Russell Author

    I was floored by the comment "Artistry is inherent in being a human being. Some of us just get to spend a lot more time practicing it." I applaud your bottom up approach to theater and will spread this talk and it's ideals. Well done sir, well done.

    Reply
  4. MithCypher Author

    I am not american. But this message resonated with me. In history every dark age was followed by a resurrection of of culture that changed minds. This Golden Age needs to ignite, i just hope i live long enough to see it bloom. Thank you mister Oskar Eustis for this small seed of a golden age.

    Reply
  5. Shada Author

    The problem is that all of this relies on people doing this in good faith. People lie all the time to make their points. On top of that, people drown out other's opinions all the time too. This is why there is no major Socialist movement in America, no Real Socialist Movement talking about replacing Capitalism as the mode of production and the organization of society, is present in America. People who hold that viewpoint and can argue for it never get screen time. Why? Because Capitalists have are invested in people never having that idea.

    Reply
  6. Dmitrii Grigorita Author

    There is no connection between theater and democracy itself.
    I was born in USSR, in this country art of theatre was one of the priorities – every major city with population 200 000 had at least 1 or 2 theatres. Soviet city with population about 1 million could have more than 10. Many soviet citizen would love to spend their free evening in theater rather than cinema.
    But nonetheless theater was not a symbol of democracy where people could have expressed their opinions. In fact, it was a instrument of propaganda, every performance was subject to checking for complying to soviet ideology.

    Reply
  7. John Author

    Excellent and thought provoking presentation. I have always enjoyed theater more than films, but there is so little available that I can afford to attend.

    Reply
  8. Bit Coin Author

    dimocracy is worthless.. how you give people judgement on cases and most of them have no knowledge? result will be bad decesions . the scholars only can decide by rules from God

    Reply
  9. Amanda Anderson Author

    That's nice. Telling us why pretending is essential to get votes. Good thing we still live in a Republic. Thanks to this video it will stay that way. 😁

    Reply
  10. DURMUŞ BAYSAL Author

    Over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.(The Noble Quran. Surah Yusuf. Verse 76)
    And those whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves. (Surah Ash-Shuraa Verse 38)
    FELLOW DWELLERS OF THE EARTH;
    My name is Eight Billion,
    I contain an angel and a devil struggling inside,
    The face I dress varies to survive,
    Always hungry for power, never enough to content,
    I look for “inner peace” whilst consumed by grudge,
    For sons, for daughters , for the self, please be advised, there long existed the new code, aside,
    Let’s consider having an appointment with the best stylist for a change,
    Experience, how exceptionally would you look better reflecting the best,
    Thus, if you manage to change yourself, repenting for good,
    The place called Earth might turn into Heaven, I assure,
    It is me, it is you, it is us will power to CHANGE.
    French : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVY8pwx9B74
    English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omh4oG8T_Fw
    German: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXWTxB6oS6I

    Reply
  11. EnCey2 Author

    What if we filmed the theater and showed it in several buildings so more people could watch it? Ah, rats, now it's a movie so it's not essential to democracy. Other forms of modern entertainment/communication probably aren't essential to democracy either, only the theater is. Only the theater provides the necessary lack of involvement of the audience that a movie can never hope to attain, thus differentiating it from movies that show a fixed plot over and over again on a big screen. The theater, on the other hand, takes us on a magical journey through a fixed plot played by human actors, contrary to the movies, which sometimes use non-democratic CGI effects in addition to human actors.

    Reply
  12. Zombielijah Yelloh Author

    "You are coming to have a collective experience of laughing together, crying together, holding your breath together to see what happens next"…

    Meanwhile in the Alamo Drafthouse: you whisper something to a friend right next to you during an action scene and the staff are already descending from the rafters to read you your rights so they don't have to kick you out for disrupting someone on a power trip two rows behind you.

    Reply
  13. Event Hʘriךּon Author

    It takes such a strong and great man to look at a boycott ans say: we failed them, lets fix this. Another man could have use the demografic evidence to say : these people are envious, these people are bitter, shame on them! But instead he saw a solution where others would have seen a scapegoat.

    Reply

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