One of the things that made the backlash to the Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Caesar so ironic, the director Diane Paulus argues, is that the concept of protest was already built into the show. In Oskar Eustis’s modern-dress production of the Shakespeare history play, which depicts Caesar as a Trump-like figure, actors spent the first hour of the play disguised as audience members before unexpectedly jumping up from their seats to form a mob midway through. “These people in the audience dressed just like audience members get out of their seats and start shouting, and rush the stage, and become part of the action of the play,” Paulus recounted. So later in the run, when actual right-wing protesters began doing the same thing, it only emphasized the points the play was trying to make about the dangers of mob mentality.
“That is theater working well,” Paulus said.
At a time when culture seems to be wrestling with an unprecedented political reality, what role should theater play? How can plays—which usually take several years to go from an idea to a full-fledged production—respond to a media landscape that shifts focus and changes direction every few minutes? These were some of the questions posed to Paulus and the playwrights Robert Schenkkan and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. The answer, Schenkkan suggested, is that theater will do what it’s always done.“Storytelling and empathy are the most effective ways to have a conversation about these very non-partisan issues in a way that moves the needle,” he said. “And that’s what theater’s been doing for 2,000 years.”