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Resist – Persist – Perform! A Theatre and Teaching Manifesto for Now – by Jessica Silsby Brater

Posted in: Guest Essay

Interpretive dance communicating political resistance

Jessica Silsby Brater is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the BA and MA Programs in Theatre Studies at Montclair State University. She is the author of Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines: Woman’s Work and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn-based theatre company Polybe + Seats.

At this fraught moment in our history as a nation, when diverse and democratic bodies are exposed to radical dangers, who and what we put on stage takes on new importance. So does our commitment to creating sites that support open, vigorous and educational conversations about who – and what – is on those stages. Theatres—and the classrooms where we make work and talk about making it—are safe places now, as in past periods of crisis, for critical thinking, emotional experience, kinetic and cerebral exchange, and embodied political activism.

We at universities are engaged in the business of promoting critical thinking, which requires us to support the claims we make with evidence…you know… those pesky “facts.” Not the alternative kind. The kind that come, for example, from quoting the text. Claim: Masha is unhappy. Evidence? When Medvedenko asks her why she always wears black, she says “I’m in mourning for my life.” See how easy that was? First page of The Seagull.  Didn’t hurt a bit.

As much as I love it when students give back something I said to them in class on a midterm exam (They are listening to me! They wrote it down!), what I’m really interested in is helping them build a strong methodology with which to use the information they receive from me, from their reading, from their performances, from other teachers, etc. etc., to formulate and then clearly express their own points of view about the material they encounter, which they can defend on the basis of rigorous research.

And do I have empathy for the plight of the student trying to frame a thesis who is pulled in a million different directions with classes, productions, work-study, family commitments? Yes, I do. Why? Well, my friends, we in the theatre are in the business of practicing empathy. Why else would we be so devoted to going around pretending to be somebody else all the time?

The university theatre community has a particular responsibility at this moment when American democracy, diversity, and difference are being questioned. We are specially trained and uniquely poised to address what threatens these values. Theatre makers sometimes take what we understand for granted. We shouldn’t; when an activist for Amnesty International asked me how to incorporate more meaningful performance into the resistance movement, I directed him to Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors.

And so, last fall, my colleague Kathryn Syssoyeva at Dixie State University posted a call on Facebook to create what is now called Acts of Resistance, a series in which campuses across the globe read the same anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-fascist, anti-nativist play on the same date. My colleague here at MSU, Mark Hardy, helped launch Ionesco’s Rhinoceros as our first show. Kathryn and I took the concept a step further in developing Classrooms without Borders, in which students on our campus and hers are responsible for staging this series. The students interact with each other to share their experiences throughout the semester via Skype. At the end of the semester, in May, her students from Dixie State in Utah will join our students here to stage the final reading in this year’s series. We are using our distance as the impetus for intimacy and advocacy.

Here are our guiding principles:

  1. Critical thinking and creative activity are acts of resistance. Doing either of these is patriotic. Using evidence to support a claim is subversive.
  1. No walls! Open borders, open classrooms, open theatre spaces. The theatre is the classroom, the classroom is the university, and the university is the community.
  1. Take aim at racism, fascism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism with texts and performances as artillery.
  1. Arm yourself with theatre history: Some writers have gone through this before (Mayakovsky, Ionesco, Brecht, Beckett, Fo, Havel). Some have been going through it the whole time (Kennedy, Parks, Cruz, Nottage, Split Britches, Jacobs-Jenkins). Make use of what they have to offer you.
  1. Put diverse bodies onstage and in your syllabus: a range of shapes, sizes, colors, cultural backgrounds, gender identifications, perspectives. Put them onstage in plays where race, gender, and ethnicity matter — and in performances where they are least expected. (h/t Richard Schechner, and hello again, 1989).
  1. Your stage can be anywhere. Street corner, kitchen, classroom, hallway, front porch, back porch. Even an actual stage.
  1. Fuente Ovejuna did it! Rise up, speak out, stand in solidarity. Be Ruby Dee, not Elia Kazan. (h/t Lope de Vega and hello again, c. 1612)
  1. Persist in acts of resistance.

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We invite you to join us as we explore plays that help to illuminate the circumstances we are living through in this moment in America. You can participate as a reader, listener, and/or contributor to an open conversation.

Interested in reading? Contact Christl Stringer:

Other questions? Contact Jessica Brater:


Suzan-Lori Parks – VENUS – Sunday 4/2 at 5pm in 1250 Life Hall

Naomi Iizuka – ANON(YMOUS) – Sunday 4/23 at 5pm in 1250 Life Hall

Co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre & Dance and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Montclair State University.