Eloquent Protest, Effective Protest?
For the past few months I've been involved with a production called Eloquent Protest, which was first produced by Feelgood Productions three years ago and is now in its third incarnation. The piece was conceived as 'an artist's response to the human cost of conflict' and contains a lot of powerful and moving material. I was honoured to be able to perform in the West End show this year, and also to be part of the version of the production that made its way out to Nepal at the Kathmandu International Festival. I've written a bit more about both experiences here but what I want to write about pertaining to this blog, is about the effectiveness of this sort of artistic protest, and whether it is possible, in a world choking on carbon, to justify flying halfway across the world to make these sort of statements.
I think the London production was a very effective piece of action/protest, albeit a quite comfortable, middle class one. The West End venue and high ticket price (though 15 pounds is quite cheap for the West End) might lead to accusations of elitism, but war veterans were given free entry, the performers gave their time for free, and all the proceeds went to Medecines Sans Frontieres, an organisation for which I have a great deal of respect. Some may question how much sitting in a theatre and listening to songs and poetry can achieve in resisting current or future wars, but there is a certain power in gathering together and remembering and reiterating artistic statements against conflict - they are a strong and important part of the culture that leads people to protest.
As for the production in Nepal, I wondered what we really had to say to a country that is still suffering the legacy of civil war, and I know a lot of the complex literary language was lost on a predominantly non-English speaking audience. The same questions remain for me about the effectiveness of this form of protest, but coming to Nepal made me realise the power of theatre in the context of revolution. The theatre school we were performing at was a focus of action during the uprising against the monarchy here, and street theatre was an important mobilising tool. Also, the director of the Thai company at the festival said our production had inspired him to write about the economic conflict occurring in his own country, the takeover of Tesco in Thailand and other such issues. This is the sort of cultural exchange and cross fertilisation that an international festival can bring about, and I've certainly taken away a lot of ideas for my own work.
I suppose the main problem I feel with being here is the paradox of being an artist making work about humans' impact on the environment flying to another continent to perform in a festival. It's not a direct hypocrisy I suppose, as our piece was about war rather than ecology, but how many wars, past, present and future were, are or will be fought for control over earth's dwindling resources? And yet, despite my pledges to my myself not to fly any more, I feel visiting other countries is more and more important in my understanding of the world, my ability to be able to make informed statements about my own and other cultures, and my own personal development and fulfillment. But how can I say my work is so important that I deserve to fly, at the same time as campaigning against airport expansion and increasing carbon emissions? How can I possibly be so self-important?
Part of the answer is that you don't have to fly in order to travel, and my next bike-based theatre project (once I've finished my long over due tour of Voices of Dissent) is to join the peace ride from London to Jerusalem and perform a piece of theatre in refugee camps in Palestine.
But meanwhile, I now have contacts and invitations from companies in Thailand, Bangladesh and others. I can't cycle everywhere, so do I take it on myself to sacrifice my wander-lust in order to practice what I perform, or do I just hope that rising oil prices and financial depression make flying prohibitively expensive for everyone (except the super rich), to public detriment and planetary benefit?