On November 10, 2017, two days after the election, I walked into my Introduction to Theatre Arts classroom to discuss The Laramie Project, which I had assigned months earlier.
The Laramie Project is a play created by members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. Its material was drawn from news reports and interviews after the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming teenager Matthew Shepard. It’s a well-cited example of how theater can teach tolerance and combat discrimination.
I wasn’t quite sure where to begin that day, and neither were my students, several of whom revealed that they were members of the LGBTQ community and expressed fears about the new administration. I’m certain I was a terrible teacher that day, and that any encouragement or insight I gave was insufficient. What could I say? I dedicated my life to theater precisely because it is a powerful tool for teaching empathy. Theater allows us to understand multiple perspectives and encourages us to ask questions about the world around us and about ourselves. How could I teach as though this had value when, overnight, 62 million Americans had just proclaimed that it didn’t?
On January 19, 2017, a day before Trump became president, more than 700 U.S. theater groups gathered before sunset to participate in the Ghostlight Project. Thousands of theater artists stood together pledging to make their theaters safe and inclusive, regardless of race, class, religion, gender, age, immigration status, (dis)ablity, or sexual orientation.
Named for the theater light that stays on after everyone goes home, the event focused on the symbolic gesture of maintaining a light that shines through the darkness. The Ghostlight Project is the brainchild of New York-based scenic designer David Zinn, who told American Theatre magazine that his inspiration grew from a “deep despair after the election, and a real feeling that we had to show solidarity, love, and community.”
Everything about Zinn’s experience rang true for me, so when I was asked to help organize local Ghostlight meetings, I agreed without knowing more than the basics: Many were hurting, and a nationwide acknowledgement of that felt useful and right.
In Philadelphia, I stood outside Theatre Exile at 13th and Reed Streets with a small group of administrators, directors, actors, and audience members. Many of my friends and colleagues also stood at much larger gatherings at Philadelphia Theatre Company, the Wilma, the Drake, Local IATSE 8, FringeArts, and Plays and Players. They also stood at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, Malvern’s People’s Light and Theatre Company, Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, and Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center. Theaters across the nation stood with us. Together we read a prepared statement, lit a light, and huddled together to ward off the darkness.
It was a moment of comfort during a time when comfort has been in short supply. Many friends were reeling from news that the Trump administration proposed eliminating funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. More were worried about health care; same-sex, interracial, or interfaith partners; and differently abled loved ones. Articulating those fears and publicly committing to share the burden felt powerful; it was the expression of solidarity, love, and commitment the organizers had envisioned.
Words into action
Expression is not, of course, the same as action. How many times in my own artistic life have I not spokenup when working on shows whose portrayals of women were unhealthy, that didn’t provide opportunities for actors of color, that contributed to erasure of a marginalized group, or that contained implicit messages of ‘otherness?’ How many times have I gone to a bar and complained to friends rather than addressing those who could effect change?
When we discuss issues of representation, diversity, and inclusion h in our communities, those who program artistic seasons are often afraid to make bold changes. That fear is understandable; when too many tickets go unsold, people lose their jobs. What the Ghostlight Project illuminated for me was the fear our community members feel: fear that LGBTQ people will be persecuted, women will lose their right to bodily autonomy, religious groups will face legal discrimination, black lives will continue to be treated as if they matter less. Those fears have changed what we will talk about, make art about, and be fearful about for the next four years and beyond. Our new fears outrank our old ones, and it’s time to get serious about what it means to be inclusive, diverse, and safe.
Shining a light
I began with an anecdote about The Laramie Project, because I have not stopped thinking about that classroom discussion.
I asked my students why theater artists who could tell any story, in any way they wanted, drove to a small town in Wyoming to interview real people after a hate crime.
“Because it’s important,” said one.
“Because they wanted to show that nobody’s a monster, but regular people can do monstrous things,” said another.
One girl struggled to answer, eventually raising her hand and offering, “Look… because Matthew Shepard is dead. So, I guess… You do what you can do. You make a play about it and you hope it’s going to make a difference, but, like, your play isn’t going to change the fact that he’s dead. You just hope you can prevent another thing like it from happening.”
So I held a flashlight outside a theater company I love, surrounded by people I would fight to protect. Donald Trump is in the White House, and my work won’t change that. But I can fight to mitigate the damage he can do, and I can challenge myself and others to achieve the standards of diversity, community, inclusion, and acceptance we have failed to meet in the past.
The Ghostlight Project was symbolic, but it does not have to be empty. I still believe in empathy. I still believe in theater. I still believe that together we can make a bright light that shines into the darkness.