The Radical Theatre: How to Turn an Audience Against Itself

This post is cross-posted at Civic Media + Tactical Design in Contested Spaces (with minor revisions)


When we think about civic media as a means to appeal to others through a medium, we may forget that we’re really exploring different types of mediation and not technology. The theatre is not something that immediately comes to mind (at least for me), but like any means of getting a message out, there is a structure to both the creation and the distribution of any content produced for it. We cannot presume that anything we do, simply because it has a political agenda, is immune to the effects of the medium. As Bertolt Brecht writes,

The avant-garde don’t think of changing the apparatus, because they fancy that they have at their disposal an apparatus which will serve up whatever they freely invent, transforming itself spontaneously to match their ideas. But they are not in fact free inventors; the apparatus goes on fulfilling its function with or without them; the theatres play every night; the papers come out so many times a day; and they absorb what they need; and all they need is a given amount of stuff.

Honest expression becomes production, and then “art is merchandise.” It is the same dishonesty that can take place in any creative industry (especially when we view them as such), because when we employ theatrics and/or music without a fair degree of tactical design to ensure the work is not co-opted by the apparatus, it becomes another product.

Brecht also writes about irrationality and pleasure inherent in opera and the provocative effects which still draw our attention. I’m reminded of Frank Zappa’s fantastic rock opera Joe’s Garage, a bizarre, sprawling 3 act work touching on censorship, sexuality, cult religion, and the music industry, released at the same time as the Iranian Revolution (Ayatollah Khomeini banned rock music from the country), and as a precursor to Zappa’s later battles with the PMRC. Four years ago Hollywood’s Open Fist Theatre staged a sold out, fourteen week run of the production.

Being a composer who didn’t particularly care to satisfy anyone’s standards but his own, it’s surprising to note that during live shows Zappa would employ what he called “enforced audience participation” at his live shows, in which people would do things asked of them from the stage (such as jump up and down, and recite a poem during one show in the UK). This wasn’t mandatory, but Zappa (as the composer and head of the band – musicians were considered his employees and went by the script most of the time) freely broke any “fourth wall” during the show’s theatrics.

Although bands have always had vocalists screaming at the audience to try and get them to sing along, Zappa becomes an old-fashioned lounge-band master of ceremonies, talking to the audience, telling them stories, goading them into all sorts of weirdness… In “Dance Contest,” Zappa makes the statement:

“I have an important message to deliver to all the cute people all over the world. If you’re out there and you’re cute, maybe you’re beautiful, I just want to tell you somethin’ – there’s more of us ugly mother-fuckers than you are, hey-y, so watch out.”

In many ways this is Zappa’s philosophy: from his earliest recordings Zappa has been mocking and critiquing the unearned privilege of the beautiful people. This flat-out statement of contempt for the beautiful, and the realization that the ugly have an unacknowledged power, is important in understanding both Zappa and his fans.

This interactivity of live music and opera is something that’s lost in recordings – in fact, before recordings rendered a single performance into crystallizing what “the song” was, there were presumably many mutations given the conditions one would perform in (Roman Mars mentions this in a 99% Invisible podcast about the RJDJ app). But it is the interface of opera, as a physical engagement between performers and the public, is what allows for possible radical transformations, in Brecht’s mind:

“We have seen that opera is sold as evening entertainment, and that this puts definite bounds to all attempts to transform it. We see that this entertainment has to be devoted to illusion, and must be of a ceremonial kind. Why? In our present society the old opera cannot be just ‘wished away’. Its illusions have an important social function. The drug is irreplaceable; it cannot be done without…. Only in the opera does the human being have a chance to be human. His entire mental capacities have long since been ground down to a timid mistrustfulness, an envy of others, a selfish calculation. The old opera survives not just because it is old, but chiefly because the situation which it is able to meet is still the old one. This is not wholly so. And here lies the hope for the new opera. Today we can begin to ask whether opera hasn’t come to such a pass that further innovations, instead of leading to the renovation of this whole form, will bring about its destruction.”

Brecht also notes that changes distinguishing dramatic and epic theatre, brought about by technical innovations which led spectators to “face something” rather than to be “involved in something.” But if we are to apply this as a form of civic media, Augusto Boal’s directive to include an audience becomes paramount:

“In order to understand this poetics of the oppressed one must keep in mind its main objective: to change the people -“spectators,” passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon – into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action… I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups
should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.”

As an way to impart the skill to handle that weapon, Operación Alfabetización Integral gave rural Peruvians various types of literacy. These went beyond basic reading and writing (which we take for granted when we hear the term literacy) and  included the the ability to speak in non-lingual mediums. Those abilities allow individuals to impart non-linguistic forms of meaning on core values relating to their identity, belief and way of life.

One day a man, in answer to the same question, took a picture of a child’s face. Of course everyone thought that the man had made a mistake and repeated the question to him:
“You didn’t understand; what we want is that you show us where you live. Take a picture and show us where you live. Any picture; the street, the house, the town, the river … ”
“Here is my answer. Here is where I live.”
“But it’s a child…. ”
“Look at his face: there is blood on it. This child, as all the others who live here, have their lives threatened by the rats that infest the whole bank of the river Rimac. They are protected by dogs that attack the rats and scare them away. But there was a mange epidemic and the city dog-catcher came around here catching lots of dogs and taking them away. This child had a dog who protected him. During the day his parents used to go to work and he was left with his dog. But now he doesn’t have it any more. A few days ago, when you asked me where I lived, the rats had come while the child Was sleeping and had eaten part of his nose. This is why there’s so much blood on his face. Look at the picture; it is my answer. I live in a place where things like this still happen.”
I could write a novel about the children of the barrios along the river Rimae; but only photography, and no other language, could express the pain of that child’s eyes, of those tears mixed with blood. And, as if the irony and outrage were not enough, the photograph was in Kodachrome, “Made in U.S.A.”

Boal also provides an outline for “transforming the spectator into actor” through increasing levels of mastery of technique, medium, and production that leads to a final stage of “the theater as discourse.” Spectator-actors create “spectacles” as per their “need to discuss certain themes.” A contemporary, well mediated example of this would be Reverend Billy (and the Church of Life After Shopping or Earthalujah). Reverend Billy and his group often maintain an identity as a evangelist and his choir, holding revival meeting-styled performances in public spaces, whether on the street or in shopping department stores. They “preach” and “sing” messages of anti-consumerism, perform exorcisms and so on.

They’ve also “cast out demons” for Deutschbank, Bank of America, BP, and other corporations, in an satirical-interventionist style akin to The Yes Men. But the church format works well for involving audiences in all sorts of locations. Most people have seen a street preacher before – but very few have seen an activist impersonating a street preacher talking about climate change or economic inequality.

By employing a familiar, participatory format like “church” in the medium of street theater, Reverend Billy is able to bypass or deflect aversion one might hold to either practice. He also can include the audience through the church format by directly addressing them, encouraging hand clapping, asking for affirmation, and so on. It’s great stuff – better yet, it translates well to the internet, where the parody is not lost on those audiences. The recordings and rhetoric of Reverend Billy’s performance can be shared and fits will with whatever social media it’s sent through.

If you haven’t heard Frank Zappa or Reverend Billy before this, I highly encourage you to check them both out. Zappa distorts the conventions of rock music for his own musical agenda, and Reverend Billy does the same to evangelical pretensions for his progressive causes. Also, don’t let that music in the video be the last you hear of Zappa – I appreciate what they tried to do in spirit, but the recording is terrible and the musicians can’t hold a candle to Zappa Plays Zappa or the original works.


Bertolt Brecht. The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater (Chapter 13), Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, 1964.
Augusto Boal, Poetics of the Oppressed: Experiments with the People’s Theater in Peru (in Chapter 4), Theater of the Oppressed, 1985.
Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed., Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 71-101.
Lowe, Kelly Fisher, and Kelly Fisher Lowe. The Words and Music of Frank Zappa. Bison Books, 2007.

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