Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Risking Life for Art

The performing arts should be valued for more than its ability to entertain. In a far more profound and complex way it can be a catalyst for change- when it educates, enlightens, transforms, inspires. When audience members leave a theatre or other performing arts venue having been touched, somehow, by their experience, then we (as artists) know we have done our job. When it prompts people to action, even better.

Art, in its various categories- from language and visual arts to the performing arts- is all about communication, and can take on many different forms. In countries that embrace democracy, artists are usually allowed to create freely, without fear of governmental retribution. We are extremely fortunate, in the U.S., to be able to mount projects, if we so choose, that are critical of our government, without fear of retaliation. However, in nations where freedom is at a premium, artists are not so fortunate. They are censored, fired from jobs and thrown in jail for nothing more than being critical of those in power. In those lands, the various art forms either tout the official 'party line', so to speak, or become a political forum, of sorts. From political satire to outright criticism, artists risk their lives and careers to bring to light the injustices that prevail living under those kinds of autocratic regimes.

It's happening right now in places like Burma, Belarus, Venezuela.

In 1990 Par Par Lay, a 60-year-old Burmese comic who performs a traditionall Burmese vaudeville routine laced with political satire called nyeint pwe, spent 6 months in jail for offending the junta with his political jokes. In 1996, he was again sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp, though released after 5 1/2, after he and his troupe the Mustache Brothers dared to poke fun at the Junta in front of Aung San Suu Kyi and an audience of 2,000 including foreign ambassadors. One of the offending routines:
a "government dance," a comic rendition of a wily public servant stealing money from the poor.

His troupe was then barred, by the Junta, from performing for Burmese people, so they had to resort to performing for foreign visitors in Par Par Lay's house. On September 25 2007, Par Par Lay was arrested, once again, during the latest crackdown in Burma. So was another popular comic, Zargana. For weeks, no-one knew what happened to Par Par Lay. His wife, a dancer, said the following:
"I tried to find him, but I don't know where he is" [snip] "If the past is an indication, he must have been beaten a lot. I am worried about whether he is alive or not."

Thankfully, according to Amnesty International, both Par Par Lay and Zargana were released in late October, however Zargana developed a lung infection from the unsanitary conditions in jail. He was briefly detained, again, after he spoke to international media about his incarceration. And sadly, it probably won't be the last time either of them sees the inside of a jail cell.

In Belarus, the Free Theatre project was created (March 2005) in response to the oppressive, dictatorial leadership of Alexander Lukashenko. It is in part sponsored by former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel , and English playwright Tom Stoppard. Those involved have sworn to keep the project alive until Belarus embraces democracy. In the meantime, this group of unpaid actors, directors and technicians continues performing in spite of crackdowns by police, and being outright banned by the Belarusian government. You see, in Belarus only state-sanctioned theatres and actors are allowed to perform. Many of these 'underground' theatres exist through the sheer tenacity and courage of those collaborating, and performances are held in flats, houses and nightclubs. And even though the audiences are pre-screened and the location of the production is revealed shortly prior to the performance, the precautions aren't always helpful. A recent Free Theatre production of "Eleven Vests" (a play about violence by British playwright Edward Bond) was raided by police, and 50 people were detained for hours, including children and theatre artists from France and the Netherlands. In spite of these occurrences and the potential risk of losing jobs or even their freedom, Belarusian actors continue to find ways to bring their voices of dissent to the people.

And in Venezuela, actress Fabiola Colmenares was recently fired from Venevision for publicly registering her disapproval of the police violence against the on-going anti-Chavista student demonstrators. 2 people have been killed in those demonstrations, so far, in case you hadn't heard. (For more information on the situation in Venezuela, check out Kate at Colombo-Americana's Perspective, and Julia's The End of Venezuela As I Know It.)

Artists need to be heard, especially when something needs to be said. And you can rest assured that our voices will not be silenced. As long as we have an audience, and as long as we have a voice.

In solidarity with those who risk all for their art.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, Comedians are dangerous.

Blademonkey said...

Jokes, satire and outright mockery are as dangerous to such regimes as a hail of bullets from a cadre of well motivated rebels.

You can stop bullets, can't stop the jokes.

WomanHonorThyself said...

what a great post Incog and u have the inside track on this one!

Incognito said...

GRANDWEEPRS: Yup, scary, scary! Just like us actors and you musicians.. :-)

BLADEMONKEY: Yes, I guess that's why they jail them. But I'd venture to say that you can stop both... by rooting them out and doing away with both.

ANGEL: Thanks.. and I do, indeed.

MUD said...

I have little trouble accepting that entertainers often look at needed changes and are the catalyst to help make them change. On the other hand, there are many in that field that think that because they make millions of dollars their personal opinions are more valuable than the regular working guy. How many times have you read that someone used their highly public life to say something that is just stupid? On the other hand, there are some people that just use their fame to make money and enjoy what life brings. No completely easy answers on this. Is Paris Hilton worth the time it takes to read about her latest thing or does Brittany's latest gaff destroy the fact that she has a great voice and should be listened to and not watched closely for setting positive trends. MUD

Pat Jenkins said...

i like this incog striaght from your passionate heart!!! mind you not that your other posts don't have feeling, but this is from who you are. now i mean this question in the most innocent sense possible so please take it that way, but do you believe people enjoy the arts to "hear" a message? isn't it about entertainment?

Frasypoo said...

You know...its true.I felt your passion with this post.
But it makes me glad that I lived in India and now here where I am free!
Hey,when are you doing that "post"?

Ortho said...

I arrived at your blog via "Right Truth." This is a great post.

You might, in pursuit of fairness, add the U.S. to the list of your countries that censors (but, thankfully does not kill artists) art. Some artists in the U.S. who were censored include Dread Scott Tyler, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethrope, Ennio Bertrand, Laura Ferguson, Eminem, Alex Donis, Aaron McGruder, and of course, many others.

The censorship of art is a planetary phenomenon that illustrates the limits placed upon the freedom of thought and expression within all nation states.

Incognito said...

MUD: I think you've misunderstood my point, MUD. I wasn't referring to celeb political posturing, I'm talking about the ability of artists to inspire people (through their art) to make changes, whether personal or global. Just as watching a documentary or film about injustices in the world might inspire people to blog about it, or donate money to a cause or whatever, so too can theatre inspire people to action. Film and theatre can open our eyes to subjects and events that we had no idea existed. That is the beauty of it all.

Incognito said...

PATJ: Actually, not always, my friend. I think there is a time and place for programmes that are for sheer entertainment. But I think audiences, at least theatre patrons, are more appreciative of plays that 'move' them, in some way. At least that has been my experience. The shows that I have won awards for, and have had the most praise for, have not been the fluffy comedies but the shows that have had something to say. The ones that have moved people from laughter to tears. Those, too, are the ones that have fulfilled me the most.
The best kind of projects are those that have a message and can entertain, at the same time.
Maybe that's why I've never enjoyed sitcoms. :-)

Incognito said...

FRASYPOO: It is something I do feel passionate about, Poo. Because there but for the grace....
Soon, Poo. Still trying to figure out what to do with it. I'll let you know. :-)

ORTHO: Thank you very much! We do censor, but as you acknowledge we don't jail them. The point of this particular post was to illustrate how performing artists in those countries (and others) are unable to perform anything that happens to be anti-government. Those you mentioned, though I'm not familiar with all of them or in what way they have been censored, haven't been censored for that reason. Will have to do some googling.
Thank you for your comment.

I plan on doing a post on the NEA, soon. That will somewhat deal with government censorhip.

Pat Jenkins said...

you don't laugh incog... belated congratulations on the awards. maybe i misunderstood. yes i agree films like shawshank redemption.. spaceballs.. i'm kidding... the pianist.. were built around a "moving" message. what i assumed you were talking about, wrongly mind you, was a production purposely trying to prove a point... redford's new flick... to that i think entertainment goers are not looking for opinion but want treated to a good show. i will differ to one who is much closer to the situation than i....

Incognito said...

Love to laugh PJ... and thanks. they mean nothing.

Maybe I wasn't clear enough...yes films like Shawshank... and yes probably even redford's new flick... he has the right to make his point... and we have a right not to watch it.. Actually I've always hated films that batter you when making a point.. but, they have the right to. bottom line. the best films, theatres are the one's that use humour, drama to make a point.