Why Theatre for Social Justice?

November 12, 2019

We are truly blessed to have Clearie McCarthy on board as Still Point’s Managing Director. I recently invited her to write a blog reflecting on the value of using theatre as a tool for social justice, which is a big part of our mission at Still point. Please enjoy her personal, powerful, and heartfelt reflections. – Anita

Clearie:

I grew up in Lansing, MI in a working-class family with both parents and an older sister. My upbringing was filled with love and encouragement and home cooked meals. I grew up skiing in northern MI in the winter and tubing behind a speed boat in the summer. My parents loved me very much and supported all of my interests. In junior high I was a first-chair clarinetist and I was an honored member of the Junior Honor Society. I had many bright, young peers and we did many normal, 11-year-old things.
During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, preceding my first year of high school, things took a turn. I got a new group of friends and acted out different behaviors in exponentially dangerous ways. Once I began driving I had complete freedom to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted. I was young, impressionable and bored and I went wherever the wind swept me. Many of my friends during high school grew up on a different side of town from me and had very different lives. I learned how to fit in with my speech and I began altering the way I dressed and combed my hair. Like most high school students, I wore many different masks. I remember training myself to remove the glint of a smile in my resting face in an attempt to look “hard”. I got suspended from school, I developed an addiction to weed and alcohol, I got into fights, I saw guns get pulled on friends, I hung out at houses owned by drug dealers. Many of my friends began to drop out of school and have babies. I quit band. I lost myself. I traumatized my family.

Upon miraculously graduating and being spat out of the public-school system from whence I came, I found myself utterly dazed and ill prepared for the “next steps”. I barely attended high school, to be honest. I found pleasure in the “street smarts” I found myself newly equipped with. Eventually, I enrolled into beauty school to earn my Esthetician license and it was around this time that I heard a radio broadcast calling for aspiring models and actors. I got a subtle spray tan and made my way to the “auditions” at the Hampton Inn. The guy told me I had the look. And that was it. I booked the gig. The “gig” being that I got to go to a convention for young, aspiring actors and models in order to present myself to agents and casting directors. The Launch Showcase.

“Come join the fashion and entertainment industry’s leading agents, scouts, and casting directors for a weekend of discovery and transformation. This event will change your life!”

I suppose it did change my life. I got an agent who never got me work and cost me a lot of money. It was quite the superficial, costly way to enter the biz. “Fake it till you make it!” was touted loud and proud to a group of 8-18-year-olds. But it made me feel like I was something. The convention took place in Chicago. My mom got me a new outfit (which the folks at the convention poo pooed with horror) and drove me across state lines.
Looking back, the event was a scam. I did, however, learn a lot about the biz. And, surely, it inspired me to pursue acting. I enrolled into my first acting class at Lansing Community College which is where my love for theatre began. This is where the concept of “knowing yourself and understanding others” really took shape for me. Many people think that acting fosters lies; in reality, it demands authenticity. I had to figure out who the hell I was before I could learn how to play someone else. I guess the rest is history. I performed in plays and studied dramaturgy, I spouted sonnets and played with masks. It’s incredible how much you can learn about yourself by putting on a literal mask; it forces you to consider how many invisible masks we all wear constantly.

Eventually I made my way to Wayne State University. At 24, I was second oldest in my BFA class and I felt that. I reaped the benefits of being at a university. I sucked in the resources and took in the surroundings of Detroit City. Meanwhile, the girl I went to prom with was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Another good high school friend was having her fourth child. The beloved partner of my ride-or-die accidentally shot himself while cleaning a handgun he purchased from a friend. And I was learning about Shakespeare and Pilates.

In my final year at WSU I forced my way into an Applied Theatre course. It was through this course that I discovered Theatre of the Oppressed and Frannie Shepard Bate’s Shakespeare in Prison (SIP) Program. I finished my college career with an apprenticeship at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility. A women’s prison in Ypsilanti, MI. The same prison, in fact, that my prom sister was incarcerated. SIP works 9 months out of the year to help a group of women produce a Shakespeare play.

After college I moved to Chicago and found a job with Still Point Theatre Collective where I teach incarcerated women at Cook County Jail and Metropolitan Correctional Center as well as adults with developmental disabilities. I teach them how to make their own theatre.
This may not be the clearest thesis for why theatre is a tool for social justice, but it’s my story of how I got to be where I am, doing the work that I do. Hopefully it provides some context and insight into the work itself.
Sometimes we just need to feel like we are something– that we are a part of something. Sometimes we need to be empowered to reflect on who the f*&^ we are and not who we can be for others. Sometimes we need to take a moment to consider what masks we wear and why. Such know-how I was able to achieve solely because of my acquaintance with theatre. Sometimes it’s not enough to witness a reflection of ourselves and society. Sometimes we need to partake in that process. If we allow only a select few to enter “the biz” and accept them as the chosen ones who are deemed capable of portraying this reflection- a reflection of all of humanity- how will we ever truly see ourselves as an important model in society? How will we begin to understand that no matter who we are, our story matters and that it is vital?

If theatre offers a reflection of humanity and society, then it is certainly imperative that it be utilized by Everyone rather than only those who “make it” into the biz. This is why theatre is an important tool for social justice. It is a human right to partake in the process of creatively depicting our world. Augusto Boal said that theatre is a weapon which should be yielded by the people. More often than not, I find that weapon is yielded by the privileged, such as myself. If our theaters are disproportionately catering to those reflections of the select few who are allowed access, then it is beyond doubt that so too does our society.

by Anita Dacanay