Can Theatre Change Your Mind?

By Rocky Rodriguez Junior, the Artistic Director of Craft Theatre. He has directed several pieces to critical acclaim including A Question of Consent, Dante’s Inferno: A Modern Telling, and Sam Shepard’s God of Hell. He recently completed a documentary on the European refugee crisis, after spending time volunteering on the front lines in Greece and France. Originally published at openDemocracy

Most people don’t think of media as propaganda, but confirmation bias is rife. What can be done?

Clare, a young woman at university, happens upon an English translation of a play written by Hitler’s favourite playwright that upsets her entire world view. She can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and now.

Filled with anxiety that the world she lives in is not as noble as everyone is led to believe, she digs deeper, jumping down a rabbit hole that eventually isolates her from everyone she knows and loves. Her friends shun her, her parents demean her and her teachers expel her. If the truth is the truth then why won’t anyone listen?

That’s the question that lies at the heart of A Nazi Comparison, a new play from my company Craft Theatre that’s currently running at Waterloo East in London. The production explores politics, climate change, the refugee crises and more, and through these topics it investigates how aspects of Nazism can resurface in contemporary societies through propaganda—and how the media can strengthen or weaken ‘confirmation bias’ in society: the tendency for people to search for and favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs

It’s that sort of bias that underpins the growing trend towards political polarization and the fracturing of communities—think Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ election in the USA, for example, or the manipulation and mythmaking that surrounded Britain’s vote on Brexit. Against that background it’s worth asking whether the arts can help to address this problem as well as to create it: can theatre change our minds in positive, life-enhancing, open-ended ways, and bring people together across the lines of difference?

I’ve been exploring the answers to these questions by engaging with the audience for the play itself, and what I’ve found is disturbing: overwhelmingly, people don’t think that confirmation bias applies to them even when they are shown evidence that it does. They think they are above it, and when they watch the work they don’t actually examine what’s in front of them. “I’m not like that” is a common reaction, “I get it, I understand the world as it is.”

But do they? To go deeper I needed to understand how audiences were internalising the play, and I didn’t think questionnaires would really provide the information I was looking for. On the whole people don’t know my face, and audiences generally don’t know I’m the director of the piece, so I decided to speak to people after each performance. I didn’t lie to them, but I implied that I was a ‘regular’ audience member too.

Of course not everyone wanted to talk, but many did. Bob, for example (not his real name), looked particularly agitated. “Oh I know for a fact that it’s all ‘hooey,’” he told me, “I have spent 30 years in the news industry, I read a lot, I know what’s going on—and I know for a fact that hurricane seasons haven’t changed in 100 years—it’s got nothing to do with climate change.”

“But I have the all the research that was used by the theatre company to develop the show,” I countered, “it has every fact in the script, properly quoted and referenced, 60 pages long. Can I email it to you?”

“No, no, I don’t have time to read anything” Bob said, proceeding to tell me that climate change is another symptom of the “left’s tricks.” I kept trying to offer insights from the research and he kept implying that he didn’t need to read it. He wasn’t listening. Bob just wanted me to agree with him.

Unfortunately, that was the trend among others from the audience I spoke with too. Each person had their own nuance, but ultimately everyone was trying to convince me that they knew the truth, that their political opinions were the right ones—and they fought hard for their bias. I started to feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. It seems that A Nazi Comparison has actually activated confirmation bias in some people rather than correcting it. That was deeply worrying for me, so why are people so ready to ignore arguments that are contrary to their world view?

It’s here that culture and the media play a crucial role. In Hollywood, it’s pretty obvious that filmmakers support confirmation bias because telling audiences what they want to hear is both easy and lucrative. However it’s also been well documented that moviemakers are actively encouraged by government agencies to present a certain image of the world. Nicholas Schou, for example, explains how:

“Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favours at CIA headquarters.”

In an interview with The Guardian, veteran CIA operative Chase Brandon confirmed that “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian…It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.” And shows like NCIS already receive special assistance from the US military.

Most people don’t think the TV programmes or films they watch are propaganda, just as they don’t like to think that their opinions aren’t their own, but these examples show that confirmation bias is hard at work under the surface of the media. In that case, what can be done?

I’m a theatre director, so that’s where I naturally look for solutions. What can independent theatres do to counterbalance the misrepresentations of history and the growing trend to inject political spin into the arts? I think they can help, but based on my own recent experience with A Nazi Comparison it’s clear that the whole model will have to change.

We need to take our theatre pieces away from tired ‘black box’ fringe theatres and grand palaces. Instead, we should be building stories around circumstances that actually happen to people, and then taking those stories to communities who can use them to foster dialogue, build bridges, and explore the facts together, in order to develop new communities of honesty and solidarity.

Television and film have a ‘fourth wall:’ they come with an innate separation between actor and spectator. Theatre represents a different medium, because the fourth wall in the theatre is fake. It can be broken down and even removed entirely by encouraging feedback and interaction between the play and its audience.

The Brazilian theatre director, writer and activist Augusto Boal attempted something like this when he created “Forum Theatre,” a model in which the actors or members of the audience could stop a scene when a character was being oppressed. The audience would then suggest different actions for the actors in an attempt to change the outcome of the story.

That would be a good start, but it still implies an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. I think theatre makers should go beyond that dichotomy and dive head first into communities. The process of getting to know people and building theatre with them and from their circumstances can develop friendship and trust, perhaps even enabling people to see themselves in new ways.

In the BAFTA award winning documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews people who were involved in the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia. Some of the murderers gleefully dramatized the killings, but when they watched footage of the actual events something fascinating happened—they realised how horrific what they said sounded, and it started to change their lives.

I’m not saying that all theatre should set out to change everyone by forcing them to confront a particular reality. Rather, we should set out to make friends with people and in doing so, through the act of mutual creation, we can all begin to mend our bias. There are many different ways to do this, but the first step in all of them is to acknowledge that confirmation bias is real, and that we all have it. The next step is to think about what we can each do personally to address or free ourselves from these biases within our own world and social setting.

The highest form of art is the creation of community—worker-to-worker, person-to-person, friend to friend. Real learning—the only kind that counters bias—happens only when people are open with each-other in a trusted environment, where they can develop authentic relationships. When envisioned in terms of community, theatre is one place where this can happen.

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  1. WobblyTelomeres

    A quote.

    “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” – James Baldwin

    The role of the artist is to pull back a veil. Nick Wolterstorff will argue that one cannot define art until he and you are blue (or red!) in the face, but I think Baldwin nailed it.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      If art is about creativity, and if we all are artists waiting to come out, it is our job to question, to be skeptical, to doubt (so we are).

      Maybe we can pull back many veils…up to all of us…

      People power to all of us who philosophize, inquire and create.

      Perhaps this, here is our stage. And we write our own plays.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        I don’t think one has to be creative to pull back a veil, to reveal something unseen by another. That is, the hero is not necessarily creative. But the act of revealing, revelation, is art.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Well, maybe.

          But if it’s art, it involves creativity somewhere…or do we say, sometimes there is no creativity involved in art?

          In that case, I’d rather be creative, not artistic. When one creates, one discovers. Discovering is revealing (to oneself, and maybe to others).

          In all cases, make this here your stage. Do your own inquiring and write your own plays about the problems of the world.

  2. DJG

    As a playwright who has had work produced, as well as several public readings of work in development, I find the whole article a tad “directorial,” much too brainy, detached from how theater truly works. But director Rodriguez is a common type of director and artistic director these days: He is focused on results.

    The problem for people like him is that for a playwright the experience of theater is an emotional revolution. So playwrights come through the process with emotions changed, ideas battered and remade, and an almost reverential feeling for the work of actors. This sentimental education is what most playwrights would like to get across. Yes, even Beckett is about sentimental education. And plays that are highly political have to deliver sentimental education, too, the classic being Mother Courage, which is hard to take emotionally for what it says (politically) about our brutality and self-delusion.

    I find these two paragraphs to be the moment when Rodriguez truly wants to talk about the power of theater:

    Television and film have a ‘fourth wall:’ they come with an innate separation between actor and spectator. Theatre represents a different medium, because the fourth wall in the theatre is fake. It can be broken down and even removed entirely by encouraging feedback and interaction between the play and its audience.

    The Brazilian theatre director, writer and activist Augusto Boal attempted something like this when he created “Forum Theatre,” a model in which the actors or members of the audience could stop a scene when a character was being oppressed. The audience would then suggest different actions for the actors in an attempt to change the outcome of the story.

    But then he resists. I have read quite a bit of Boal, who has many ideas that U.S. theater still won’t try out. Rodriguez should go back to Boal. (I’m detecting some “cop in the head” in Rodriguez, a concept that Boal describes and gives antidotes for.)

    Expecting people to learn a great deal of information from a show is not a great idea, though, and intellectual changes in an audience member aren’t going to be evident after one performance. Even Angels in America, which is a highly effective evocation of history, works best as a play that forces the audience to address its lack of compassion for victims of society and to consider what may be different reactions to adversity. It isn’t about the trial of Ethel Rosenberg, even though she makes remarkable appearances. And I saw it most recently as one show, at Court Theater in Chicago, starting around 2:00 p.m. and ending around 11:00 p.m.–a kind of theater that engages all emotions and places a stress (healthy) on our highly defended structures of emotion.

    So I think that Rodriguez is after the wrong thing here. Maybe he should spend some time on stage. Maybe he should write for the stage. But “being a director” means that he doesn’t understand that the power of the theater is to get an audience to watch suffering on stage, suffering that they experience as real, and to come away with new depth of feeling. Sentimental education.

    I recommend reading about Bryan Dorries, Greek tragedy, and what Dorries does for veterans and medical students–emotionally.

    I bet that you can tell that I can’t stand facile crap like “Oklahoma.” Enough for now. This is a big topic.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I agree with most of the points I read in your comment. I believe you are asserting “an emotional revolution” lies at the heart of drama [– although you’re describing the impacts of drama and actors on the playwright — so I hope I’m not drawing a conclusion out of context — you do mention Bryan Dorries having an emotional impact on veterans and medical students]. Though important pathos is only one of the characteristics of drama.

      As far as “facile crap” like “Oklahoma” — I truly enjoy “facile crap” like “Oklahoma” and I like “South Pacific” too. I agree with the notion expressed in one discussion of “Oklahoma” which asserted it helped soldiers leaving for the front remember what they were fighting for. “Oklahoma” recalls to me stories my grandpa told about the little town in Texas where he grew. The box-lunch social in Oklahoma was a feature of life in my grandpa’s little town. So were dances and fist fights over a girl. “Oklahoma” captures for me what I imagined my grandpa’s youth might have been — before the Depression and Dustbowl hit. Is “Oklahoma” sappy and corny? It’s as sappy and corny as the idealized, fondly remembered youth of my grandpa.

      But as a playwright do you really want to suggest Broadway musicals are or should be dramas like a good play? As a non-playwright I would be disappointed seeing a musical that seemed like a play or a play that seemed like a musical. I think each addresses different purposes.

      1. DJG

        JG: I should have made it clearer: The playwright, actors, and audience should all go through emotional revolution together. Theater is about learning an experience directly, which should lead us to be more humane. This is one of the reasons why I suspect Rodriguez of misreading Augusto Boal, who was Brazilian and, therefore, had a different take on things.

        As to Oklahoma and Broadway musicals, I’d argue that the situation post-Sondheim is worse. Everything is now Sondheimian: Sung dialogue likely. The required 15 songs in the first act and the required 17 in the second act. American musicals are making Wagner look downright spontaneous.

        There are still good playwrights in the U S of A: Look for Lynn Nottage and Lydia Diamond. Tony Kushner. David Henry Hwang. I saw something wonderful recently in Philly by Mary Tuomanen.

        The problem these days is that identity politics means that the playwright’s backstory is told instead of discussing the quality of the work. There is no separation from the work. So the advertising is:

        A new work for the theatre
        “Let’s Sing Some Songs,” a musical
        A vegan, non-gender-binary, American nationalist former Albanian nun, and recovering alcoholic

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I appreciate your suggestions of new playwrights to check out –thank you. As a young man I very much enjoyed seeing the Winter Stock performances at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego — I fondly recall “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and “Man in the Glass Booth”. [“Oppenheimer” definitely educated me in a way similar to how I believe Rodriguez wanted to educate his audiences.] But I live on the East Coast now. These days as a retiree I have to overcome the ever growing costs of getting to good theater since I live in something of a backwater. And of course I still have to afford a ticket. Unfortunately of late, most of my theater arrives by snail mail from Netflix.

          Much of the appeal theater has for me lies in its affect on my emotions and its ability to get me thinking about things from new directions and new points of view. I look to theater, and now movies, literature, even television to fashion new visions and new myths for our age and the coming age. I dislike drama that strikes me about the head and shoulders with teachings when there are some many more powerful arrows — like emotion — in that quiver.

          Based on the drift of current politics and some of the artist cards that accompanied the final assignments in the glass art class I took I very much agree with your identifying “identity politics” as the culprit behind what I perceive as a decline in the quality of much current theater (a judgment based less on evidence than on strong bias formed through past experiences).

          As to Broadway musicals “Everything is now Sondheimian” — I’ve never seen a musical by Sondheim so I’m definitely ignorant of the present state of musical theater. My last trip to Broadway was to view the much acclaimed “Spring Awakening” — which left me cold as a musical and as drama. I guess that both dates me and encompasses the limits of my tastes. I thought “Spring Awakening” was weird although the plot might appeal to an early 20th Century German schoolboy. After the difficulty and expense I went through to see this show I lost interest and touch with what happened on modern Broadway.

    2. Watt4Bob

      I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

      I have two kids who were deeply involved in theater since middle school, one who is now studying theater in college, and another who has moved on to grad school in the visual arts.

      I like to think of the arts as being an effective counter, in the context of ones personal life, to the machinations of “them”, by “them” I mean rapacious rent-seekers.

      I’m amazed that anyone involved in directing theater would be so concerned with ‘results’, especially on performance night.

      While I’m reasonably sure theater can, and does produce ‘results’, I would think that is in the long-term, I would not expect them to be immediate.

  3. Synoia

    Most people don’t think of media as propaganda,

    The Romans used theater to broadcast their civilization and values.

    All publicly expressed actions can be considered propaganda, and enforcing some social direction, aka “values.”

  4. Wukchumni

    Being a Bohemian’s Bohemian i’m biased towards Václav Havel-whose family history mirrors mine, and who risked so much for what some might’ve thought was so little but paid off so handsomely eventually, when pointing out absurdities in the system that bound it’s people in invisible chains and straitjackets of the mind.

    What does an American have to risk really, when comparing DJT to Adolf & his henchmen?

    When Darwins, opinions lose.

    1. jrs

      not much to lose, but very little to gain either as that kind of godwin just makes people tune out entirely unless they are already sold. Donald Trump can be bad in his own way.

    2. Olga

      Havel is hardly an example to be emulated… Since you claim to be Bohemian’s Bohemian, it should not be too hard for you to learn about his true self…

  5. Louis Fyne

    Writer means well, but everyone views the world through their own lens—-if anything art is **supposed** to be about projecting/sharing your (biased) view of the world to others.

    And the tone of the piece implies that it’s only the Right who are in a hall of mirrors. Democrats and the Left are just as prone to sticking their fingers in their eyes—-perhaps we wouldn’t have a President Trump is the credentialed intelligensia on the left were more circumspect.

  6. jake

    What a deathless fantasy…. Propaganda may sell cornflakes and the latest war, using techniques of the arts, but that ain’t art. And making the audience cry into its jumbo popcorn won’t change history.

    This chestnut — that the arts promote social justice and alter core beliefs and prejudices — is treasured by administrators, not artists, who generally know better. King Lear is as useless a tool of social change as a Mozart string quartet.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I agree with you but just to play devil’s advocate for a minute, Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in The Clouds and Socrates was (a couple decades) later sentenced to death. Some might argue that improved Athenian society immensely ;)

  7. D

    The fact that the largest Law and Accounting Firms – which are solely in the business of helping the wealthy keep their money – whose services are utterly unaffordable to most, pressure newbie staff to become board members of Non Profits; as in The Arts™ and [Utterly Worthless, yet stunningly well funded] Safety Net™ Non-Profits, speaks volumes as to the hope of The Arts™ effecting any materially tangent societal change for the better.

    1. Norb

      But doesn’t the fact that the arts are so captured prove the point of their importance? Showing how the world really functions- and making people feel something for others is a powerful tool. The arts are one way to teach empathy.

      The left, at the very least needs to help people “unplug” from the current media and artistic juggernaut. The arts can set you free, or keep you imprisoned in a hall of mirrors. It just depends how they are used.

  8. Michael Fiorillo

    It’s somewhat analogous to politics, law and the legal system: just as politics affects the law, the law then in turn affects politics.

    Think about the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century and how they affected national politics, which then led to major changes in labor law, which then became embedded in what we think of as the New Deal and its aftermath.

    The same is true with art, which for the most part reflects, but doesn’t cause, social change, with the exception of a few artists whose ideas or techniques later permeate and affect the culture, but in a diffuse way.

    As for this article, if many culture consumers, especially consumers of “high” culture think of art as a kind of secular religion – as is the case with many cosmopolitan theater-goers – then it’s to be expected that they’ll go to have their biases confirmed, as in any other church.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Sorry — I am in an ornery mood/mode. You do not get a pass. Either take a stand or don’t — and if I disagree with you I will — unless your stand seems without backbone and then it will be ignored. If I agree with you I may again pass or agree wholeheartedly or with caveats.

      Politics affects law — but law affects politics??? Clever — but politics defines law and even selects the final arbiters of what law means. Your equivocation is nulled.

      As for the New Deal, the New Deal is considerably more complex than your portrayal. Refer to Domhoff’s analysis at [] — you might start with “How Corporate Moderates Created the Social Security Act.”

      “The same is true with art, which for the most part reflects, but doesn’t cause, social change, with the exception of a few artists whose ideas or techniques later permeate and affect the culture, but in a diffuse way.”
      HUH! !!!!! HUH!!!!! ?????

      Do you have an opinion or not? If art does not cause social change — what does? You can’t have some exceptional artists affect culture “in a diffuse way” while arguing art reflects but does not “cause social change.” What does cause social change!? I would not argue that Art causes social change. Assert an opinion! You can be sure someone — maybe me — will argue with you. That’s what we’re here for! i would argue art does NOT cause social change but intentional social change has not come about without attendant Art. Social change can result from cataclysm — like abrupt changes resulting from Global Warming. After — I believe Art would help lead a way forward.

      As for me — I do not regard Art as a secular religion — whatever that means to you — and as for your assertion that “it’s to be expected that they’ll go to have their biases confirmed, as in any other church” — I take offense. One may have regard for Art [NOTE: not the same as “secular religion”] without expecting to have biases confirmed “as in any other church.” My “church” of Art is a church of contradictions and many many voices. I look for the Truth in the many voices seeking to tell it. I trust to the compass of my heart. I can assure you that is not the same as seeking to have my prior biases confirmed

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Bully for you and your compass.

        I stand by what I wrote, and am confident that if you visit a NYC theater, you will see ample evidence of people basking in the validation of their biases, and in particular of their virtue and moral advancement.

        As for you’re not getting what I mean by art and theater functioning as a kind of secular church for educated and affluent urbanites, I give up.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          You give up too easily. You first need to make an argument. So far you’ve made an assertion. At the very least you need to clarify that assertion — and better yet you might add a few warrants to help support that assertion.

          I’m not sure what to make of your initial assertions about politics, law, labor conflicts and the New Deal. So I’m not sure exactly what “same” is true with art.

          Staying with your last assertion which seems to be the main point of your comment — Do you have particular cosmopolitan consumers of “high” culture in mind? And what of your notions of religion as a way to have biases confirmed — what biases do you have in mind? I can grasp the worship some consumers of “high” culture give to art and to the theater. That worship seems remote from the worship I associate with the religious impulse — but I’m not religious so I can only speculate on that point.

          I’ve thought further about your comment and here are some of those thoughts. Art and the actions of a society move together. Art does not drive action but prepares a tender that catches the spark of an incident and light the flames of action. When Joe Hill died his death coincided with the death of Labor. Mackie gave body to corruptions of Weimar Germany. Shakespeare’s Henry V gives pride to England in Elizabeth I’s last years. The Sad Panda reminds Egypt of the yoke of its corrupt dictatorship and police and military. — The best examples I could think of quickly. Art is rather like a fellow traveler — but not all art serves a purpose like propaganda or a tool for sales or drives social action. Some Art enquires into the nature of our existence — Sartre’s play “No Exit” or raises disturbing questions about our society like “Death of a Salesman” or Hopper’s “Nighthawks” or the novel “1984.” And of course some Art is highly personal and idiosyncratic — an expression of emotions that resonates with others of humankind.

          I strongly suspect that if I better understand what you are asserting I very probably agree with you. Much of the theater I attend I attend for entertainment and of course I hope to take away some nugget thought to more fully examine later. For me visual art provokes a much more immediate response and I cannot help but make judgments on the aesthetics and meaning of a work. I suspect the kind of cosmopolitan consumers of “high” culture you have in mind might very well be among the awestruck admirers of a large canvas painted a uniform black and shown in MOMA. Though I’m not sure what biases they are indulging …? Nor do I quite see an identity between their worship of “ART” as somewhere certified and religious worship.

          As for my compass — sometimes I discover I’m standing too near a magnetic pole and must look for for my bearings elsewhere.

          1. Michael Fiorillo

            “When Joe Hill died his death corresponded to the death of labor.”

            I suggest you bone up on your US labor history.

            As for the rest of your arguments, you’re all over the place in responding to what I thought were some pretty straightforward statements.

            Art as a secular religion? Yes, in that they both are spoken of in the language of transcendence, redemption, prophecy… is that so hard to see, or are you just playing dumb.

            As for biases being confirmed, I’ve lived in a “cultural capital” my entire life, and have thus constantly witnessed people using art as a vehicle for signifying social status and confirming their biases about themselves as sophisticated, enlightened and meritocratic cosmopolitans, and politics and society at large. The higher up the food chain of haute culture you go, the more evident this tic becomes.

            I suspect we might agree on much if there was more time to flesh these things out, but you seemed intent on starting a conflict. Meanwhile, go back and read up on the CIO.

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              Thank you! I believe I have a better grasp of your opinion.

              Yes I confess I enjoy argument. I believe it helps me better understand my own thoughts and opinions as well as those of others. I apologize if you felt I were in any way disrepectful. I have no intent to be. Your comments were contrary much of the rest of the discussion and also cryptic to me. I became curious about what you were saying — and wondered at what seemed its sour tone.

              And as for Joe Hill — I was referring to the words of the song “I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”. I was making a playfull (?) suggestion Joe Hill was indeed dead now because the conditions for his life beyond death seemed to hold no more or in any case he’s slowly been dying:

              “Joe Hill ain’t dead, he says to me
              Joe Hill ain’t never died
              Where working men are out on strike”

  9. Jeremy Grimm

    Reading posts like this one bother me. There was no chewy center I could grab onto and wrestle with. I had trouble relating some of the discussion to the title and I disagree with many of the assertions made in this post.

    From the top — “Can Theater Change Your Mind?” seems a question past its time. The impacts and influence of the theater diminish with each year of increasing ticket prices combined with the peculiar direction modern theater seems — to me — to have chosen. There is a theater of revivals and many forgettable and unpleasant “modern” plays trending toward an aesthetic alien to most of us lumpen public. My infrequent attempts to find a play which I might want to see hasn’t turned up anything that sounded like I might want to see it — so in fact although I love theater I haven’t seen a play in years — other than plays made into movies — like “A Thousand Clowns”, “Dreigroschenoper”, “Death of a Salesman”, “A Man for All Seasons”, “Mutter Courage” … older dramas. Modern theater repels me. “Waiting for Godot” with Beckett is as entertaining for me as watching Andy Warhol’s “Empire.” Can theater change my mind? Of course it can and did once but no more. Does modern theater change my mind? It does most unfavorably affect my opinions about the theater a malaise I try to avoid by avoiding modern theater and continuing to watch older plays where I can.

    This post wanders next into the question of how theater strengthens or weakens confirmation bias. Finding that somehow “A Nazi Comparison” failed to convince Bob that climate change wasn’t hooey [I like Global Warming better — climate change is so bland!] — shock followed upon Bob’s refusal to accept an email containing 60 pages with “every fact in the script, properly quoted and referenced.” Is “A Nazi Comparison” a play or a stealth lecture?

    My own impressions of people who refuse to accept the reality of Global Warming hardly substantiates a concern about confirmation bias. I’ve had many conversations with people who refuse to believe in Global Warming and I reached the conclusion these people didn’t want to believe in it because it is too horrifying to believe.

    The question asked near the middle of the post “… why are people so ready to ignore arguments that are contrary to their world view?” is most telling. Plays are not an art form for making arguments. That artful is called Rhetoric. Perhaps this confusion of a play with rhetoric lies at some part of my distaste for modern theater. “… theater is one place where this [‘Real learning—the only kind that counters bias …’] can happen.”

    NO! Theater can teach but it must never become didactic.

    I think theater shines a pale glimmer growing dim as movies and television replace the drama which once graced the stage. Do movies “support confirmation bias because telling audiences what they want to hear is both easy and lucrative.”? I think that question might be re-framed as “Do movies serve as a tool for propaganda?” Ask Leni Riefenstahl. Can the theater serve as a counter to propaganda? Ask Bertolt Brecht.

  10. PKMKII

    The problem with most attempts at correcting confirmation bias is that people come at it from the angle of “Oh, this person is failing for false information because of confirmation bias, I just need to present them with the truth and then their bias will wilt and die.” This only addresses the symptom of confirmation bias, rather than the root cause of hubris unencumbered by any sense of self-awareness. You have to address people’s lack of thinking about their thinking. Too many of us see our thought processes as givens, not things we can review and analyze. The recent advent of the self-branding/marketing mindset doesn’t help either, as it encourages people to think that if they’re ever projecting an attitude of anything other than supreme confidence and certitude in their self/brand, they will fail at life. So it’s not just a correction of the individual that needs to take place, but also our larger cultural values and what we see as signifiers of success.

    1. jrs

      Global warming I’ll take as a given based on both the science and the overwhelmingly obvious evidence of my senses knowing that. But a lot of things people will never experience directly, if being American they may never even directly encounter what is is to even be say a different class (yes this would also apply to race etc.). So there is that. And theater could show them? I don’t know. The map is not the territory there.

  11. Steve H.

    We’re doing Stoppard’s ‘Travesties’ and only the silly girl thinks art can change the world.

    Stoppard not known for strong women characters. So we’re making that happen back in Paradise.

    Our audience is most def not statistically independent.

    When I did interactive theater in prison, funded as HIV education, we got told we were saving lives, determined administratively. Shakespeare in Prison & Slums programs appear to open people up to emotions beyond anger, which aren’t very socially acceptable to express within context. While I’d like to think we enhanced empathy, it may have been as simple as “I’ll die if I don’t put a rubber on my willie,”

    A decreased death rate indicates that yes, theater can help to change minds.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe Theater and Art DO change minds — at least they change my mind — or perhaps more accurately — broaden my mind and my thinking.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        Art does. Craft doesn’t. Well-crafted theater may entertain but it doesn’t enlighten.

  12. Susan the other

    Rediscovering why there is this thing called ‘drama’. Yes it can make us look closely at ourselves. Even a cat an recognize itself in a mirror. There is a cognition that goes on when you can observe yourself as if you were a third person. The Greeks knew this well. “The highest form of art is the creation of community.” And by ‘community’ I assume this writer means ‘communication’. A forum. The artists’ squat in East Berlin had the Volksbuhne, an outdoor stage kludged together with salvaged bits and pieces where they performed their ideas. Very Brechtian. Maybe even Shakespearean. And did so out of the ruins, still left standing, of WW2. This reminds me of a documentary, forget the name, about a clinic (also in Indonesia I think) where a very effective treatment for debilitating psychological problems was video-taping the patient so that he or she could play it back and see themselves for who they were. Interesting.

    1. Norb

      It is that balance for seeing who we truly are and the possibility of what we can become. Young children seeing the cultural myths and history played out before their eyes sets the course of their lives. It is the purpose of culture.

      Your examples bring home the point that art can be used for good or evil. Good being the healing and expansion of the human spirit and its connection to the larger world, and evil- the enslavement of the same.

  13. Joel

    What gets ignored is that NO ONE, not even well-informed liberals, want to challenge their own beliefs. The well-educated may have fewer misconceptions, but the ones they do have, they cling tight to.

    I’m an American who has lived a good chunk of years in Latin America. I have given up trying to talk with college-educated Americans about Latin America. They think they know it all already (and tbh, so did I before I went there): homogeneous Latinos with left-liberal identity politics opinions being oppressed in some vague way by the United States and the burden of history. It’s a lot easier to adopt a pose of being critical and informed than to actually read and research and question.

    College-educated people are even harder to talk to since their (our) self-conception is wrapped up in being well informed, while less educated people take pride in other things.

  14. Ur-Blintz

    I’d like to know what Rocky Rodriguez thinks of Lin Miranda’s masterpiece of agitprop “Hamilton” which transformed our most authoritarian and anti-democratic founding father into a cultural icon for millions around the world who have no idea what Alexander Hamilton actually believed.

    Matt Stoller has something to say about that:

    “…if you want to understand the politics of authoritarianism in America, the place to start is not with Trump, but with the cool-kid Founding Father of the Obama era, Alexander Hamilton.”

    “…it presumes that Alexander Hamilton was a figure for whom social justice and democracy were key animating traits. Given how Democrats, in particular, embraced the show and Hamilton himself as a paragon of social justice, you would think that he had fought to enlarge the democratic rights of all Americans. But Alexander Hamilton simply didn’t believe in democracy, which he labeled an American “disease.” He fought—with military force—any model of organizing the American political economy that might promote egalitarian politics. He was an authoritarian, and proud of it.”

    “We should be grateful not that Hamilton structured the essential institutions of America to fit his vision, but that he failed to do so. Had he succeeded, we would probably be living in a military dictatorship.”

    “it’s useful to recognize that Hamilton the play is not the real story of Alexander Hamilton; rather, as historian Nancy Isenberg has noted, it’s a revealing parable about the politics of the finance-friendly Obama era. The play is based on Ron Chernow’s eight-hundred-page 2004 biography of Hamilton. Chernow argues that “Hamilton was an abolitionist who opposed states’ rights, favored an activist central government, a very liberal interpretation of the Constitution and executive rather than legislative powers.” Hamilton, he notes, “sounds . . . like a modern Democrat.” The abolition arguments are laughably false; Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and traded slaves himself. But they are only part of a much broader obfuscation of Hamilton’s politics.”

    …you bet theater can change minds… it can also re-write history in the process…

    1. The Rev Kev

      Damn right that theater can also re-write history in the process. Hamilton? A hero of modern democracy? Considering how much the political establishment loves this play, I can believe that they love this character. Reading some of the people’s names that have seen this play in that link that you mentioned, it sounds like a rogues gallery of the deep state.
      If they can rehabilitate Hamilton then perhaps they are ready for another play, or better yet a musical for another figure from history. They could try the musical at as an example and if it was anti-Trump, they would go to see it in droves.

  15. Wisdom Seeker

    @ Joel – “What gets ignored is that NO ONE, not even well-informed liberals, want to challenge their own beliefs.”

    This isn’t quite true. Genuine scientists are constantly challenging their beliefs. And as a result, finding much to be skeptical about among the beliefs of others. (Here I mean science in the broader sense of a means to finding knowledge – not simply memorization of a body of prior knowledge taught in school.)

    Unfortunately I think you’re generally right, there are very few people who approach life from a skeptical / scientific frame of mind.

    Going back to the original article – I emphatically agree that art and theater can change worldviews, but disagree that such a large change can happen in a few hours. In growing up I was deeply affected by Les Miserables (first as a book, then as a musical) and also Godspell (as a high school musical where I was part of the crew and got to see the show several times). But those changes were subtle and took a long time to unfold.

    Right now I tend to agree with Jeremy Grimm (and also DJG) that most of what is shown on stage (at least in the US, at least where I live) is either old/stale classics (and hard to find) or else not resonant psychologically and thus not worth watching. For theater to change minds it needs to connect with a broader audience beyond the insiders and regulars. Hollywood has the mass-market audiences, but overall it’s even worse – propagandized rehashes of the same few basic plot types, with just a few details tweaked to freshen up the schlock. Why do the producers and directors refuse to feed the audiences anything but sugar highs? Or is it that the audiences go to movies to escape, and only want sugar highs these days?

    1. ChrisPacific

      This isn’t quite true. Genuine scientists are constantly challenging their beliefs.

      And the best scientists are consequently well aware of how difficult it is. You have only to look at the peer review process and competing theories in various scientific fields to see that confirmation bias is alive and well in the scientific community. The scientific method helps to tame it and mitigate its effects, but can’t eliminate it.

  16. nihil obstet

    Several commenters above mentioned Greek and Roman theater. I highly recommend a fascinating three-part documentary that’s up on YouTube: BBC Ancient Greece The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s about politics and theatre and it’s just enthralling to watch. The link is to the first episode. The other two are up as well.

  17. Thomas

    I hope this isn’t another Brexit voters are stupid nazis play. The arrogance of many of the remainers, many of them working with arts in London, is unbelievable.

  18. ckimball

    I just want add this little anecdote to this line of inquiry.
    Years ago my daughter and I were gifted to a series
    of musical performances at Meany Hall. Because we
    were working hard, to attend was joyful yet effortful.
    On the particular evening I am remembering the schedule
    described a twenty-one year old Japanese violinist who
    had been world celebrated. I was tired and skeptical.
    I was thinking ‘Oh, another virtuoso of technique. How
    exhausting’ Because of my daughter we attended.
    A tiny Japanese young woman walked onto the stage.
    On her first note I burst into tears. (My sense is that the
    mystery of the convergence of creativity and art is a
    contemplation that cannot and should not be made to
    submit to cultural categories.)
    My hope is that as a people we can identify and
    value again an environment both within oneself and
    within the culture to protect the earnest student from
    the manipulation of those seeking end results such as
    a powerful piece, an emotional response…..those things
    are by products they cannot be designed and be real.
    Well I said more than I thought I would.

  19. D


    I’ve been mulling, for hours now, re your response to me above (sorry I’m unable to ‘nest’ comments on my threadbare Dial Up internet access, interestingly I am able to nest comments on all other WordPress sites I’ve ever commented on. (No this is not an assignment, just a heads up from those losing affordable access)):

    The arts are one way to teach empathy.

    If the actual, exponentially increasing suicides, in all age brackets and once honorable vocations and aspirations, and exponentially increasing homelessness can’t teach certain people empathy, you think a Theatre Actor[ess] can? Sorry, but really? They are only Kept Actors and Actresses.

    Not trying to pick on you, and I’m guessing I’m a quite bit older than you. I will never forget how arrogant, well fed, obnoxious CHEAP, MEAN and DISMISSIVE the local Non-Profit! Theatre! Group! who frequented the restaurantPiano Bar™ I cocktailed waitressed at to pay for my college degree was.

  20. RBHoughton

    I have mentioned before on this site, the ancient Greek approach to democracy. They linked it to theater because they needed a mechanism to introduce the hard choices to a populace that had no prior experience of making them. This was real democracy not the representative system that has replaced it.

    A good example is contained in Euripides play “The Trojan Women” in which the women are to be enslaved and the children killed in accordance with usual practice after defeat. A film was made of that play in 1970s and is still occasionally available on DVD.

    1. blennylips

      Do note the above comment by

      nihil obstet
      October 18, 2017 at 5:53 pm

      “The Trojan Women” figures prominently in the first episode. Very enjoyable series.

  21. D

    it cannot be said enough:

    This was real democracy not the representative system that has replaced it.

    You are referring to The [Not Free at all] Free Markets! …Republic [of Thought Leader$™]™ aren’t you, RBHoughton?

    ;0( , thank you, if so, honeybee ;0). <period.

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