Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics

Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics

Cressida Brown, who directed the Shakespeare and Company open-air production of Macbeth last July, tells us about her latest theatrical production, Walking the Tightrope, a collection of 12 world premieres by celebrated playwrights exploring the interaction between art and freedom of speech…

Why do I think a project exploring how politics and art interact is urgent right now? The answer lies in the very experience I’ve had putting on this festival of strongly opinionated plays, which touch on art censorship, cultural boycott, offensive art, and accusations of racism. Throughout, I have genuinely felt as if I am walking a tightrope. And now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, this feeling is stronger than ever.

Nerve racking questions remain unanswered: Should I censor a play about art censorship if it is offensive? How can I make sure we get a balance of opinions? Is it possible to be neutral while hosting these explosive plays? How can I get a debate going but avoid a backlash? However, the fact the issue of freedom of expression seems so complicated to negotiate at the moment is exactly why I think we should be raising it.

Last summer, I did not feel so cautious when I posted the question “How can this be seen as anti-Semitic?” on my Facebook timeline. I was referring to the Tricycle Theatre offering to replace Israeli funding of the Jewish Film Festival due to the conflict in Gaza. I assumed that everyone I was friends with, especially those in the arts, would agree with me. I was wrong. A couple of hours later, my page had exploded in over sixty warring comments. And then I did something that triggered my eventual decision to initiate this festival—I deleted the entire thread from my wall. I had worried how my opinions might be regarded by others, or whether my politics were going to affect my relationships in the art community. I had censored myself.

Why was I so worried about others seeing my opinions? Shouldn’t this be what art is about, passionately asserting a point of view? Why had I never found out what my peers’ opinions on these topics were before, and why did we only debate them in the heat of the moment? Why did that debate initiate online and not in person? And how had I never realised what a thorny and perhaps paradoxical thing freedom of expression can be?

I can’t have this debate by myself. Now, with some distance from the events of last year, I have decided to unpack the issue the only way I know how: theatre. And though several months have passed since those particular triggering events, sadly now at the beginning of 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the conversation seems more relevant than ever.

My hope, however, is that we will continue to meet these controversies with a renaissance in political theatre, discussing liberty through live, tangible art and conversation.

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Image credit Camilla Greenwell

Cressida Brown is Artistic Director of Offstage Theatre. Walking the Tightrope is showing at Theatre Delicatessen from 26th-31st January, 7.30pm.

Hear Cressida speak about Walking the Tightrope on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.