The mood is set with wild costumes and outlandish puppets; blood and gore and baby carriages; music, singing, and dancing. Impassioned speeches ring out over rapt crowds. The modern large-scale political rally, the major manifestation of the growing movement against war on Iraq, employs nearly all the arts of theater. On March 2 and 3, thousands of artists will extend the show by making theater in the service of protest: On Sunday, over 100 theaters in New York will take action as THAW—Theaters Against War; the next day, over 600 groups across the country and the world are scheduled to present Aristophanes’ 2500-year-old anti-war play, Lysistrata.
The organizers behind these efforts started without grand designs. “It was literally in my living room,” says Anne de Mare, a playwright on the steering committee of THAW. “About five of us were sitting around and talking about what on earth we could possibly do about the war, and it occurred to us that there must be a way to make what we already do political.” As theater artists, they decided to use their existing spaces and upcoming productions to get across a message of dissent.
“I’d been working on a screenplay that was a modern adaptation of Lysistrata and I heard about THAW,” says Kathryn Blume. “I thought, why not do a reading, and as a friend of mine says, feed two birds with one seed. I got an e-mail from my friend Sharron Bower, and we got into a big round of e-mails and phone conversations that turned into a massive ‘Yes-and!’ Let’s do a series of readings! Yes—and let’s have them all over the country! Yes—and let’s give the proceeds to peace groups.” Like the Not in Our Name pledge of resistance, like the D.C. and New York protests, a critical mass for both projects was built through e-mails, Web sites, and word of mouth.
A key factor for success in this decentralized organizing is allowing individual freedom, especially in New York’s diverse artistic community. “We’ve asked theaters to find a way in their own voice to speak against what’s going on,” says THAW’s de Mare. Depending on whether a theater company has an ongoing production or a space of their own, they can participate in different ways. Some ticket holders will find THAW inserts in their programs or hear curtain speeches crafted by playwrights like Robert O’Hara and Kia Corthron. A half-dozen spaces are presenting original programming on Sunday: The Women’s Project Theatre with New Georges will have short plays and scenes on war along with a peace cabaret; Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn will show documentaries on Panama and Afghanistan; Chashama in Times Square will have playwright Alec Duffy and others singing Woody Guthrie songs in their front window; Brecht’s classic anti-war play Mother Courage will be mounted by the company EB&C at the Here Arts Center. These productions will be augmented by street actions organized by performer Aaron Landsman in a form still to be determined, though they will probably be stylized mock marches: theater imitating protest imitating theater.
Blume and Bower have chosen a more unified message in Aristophanes’ bawdy satire, in which the women of Athens organize a sex strike along with their Spartan sisters and take control of the city treasury to halt the Peloponnesian War (which had dragged into its 21st year at the time the play was originally produced). Lysistrata is long and thick with double entendres, and the Project is offering a variety of more or less R-rated translations that can be read cross-culturally from Montgomery to Phnom Penh to Tegucigalpa. Some productions will be in large regional theaters like Berkeley Rep or experimental companies like London’s KAOS Theater; some will be in living rooms, high schools, and hospitals. “We can picture the planet pulsating with Lysistrata energy,” says Texas native Bower. “We would love for no one to live their life on the 3rd without running into Lysistrata.” Here in New York, 40 roving bands of players will present the play in public spaces from Prospect Park to Union Square. At 7 p.m, the BAM Harvey theater will host a major reading, directed by Ellen McLaughlin and starring Mercedes Ruehl, Kathleen Chalfant, Kyra Sedgwick, and yes, Kevin Bacon.
But the gloss of activist celebrity, as seen on TV, is no more than icing on this homemade cake. The people behind THAW and the Lysistrata Project are using theater to provide an intimate, complex alternative to the blaring messages of both mass media and mass protests. “The only real change happens person to person,” says de Mare. “The wonderful thing about theater is this covenant between the stage and the audience.” Linda Chapman, associate artistic director of New York Theater Workshop and a member of THAW’s advisory board, adds, “We’re tapping into a long and honorable tradition that goes back to the Greeks, when the Senate was mirrored by the theater. Theater is so important for democracy because it inspires complexity of thought.”