Ngugi tells us there is no empty space, that every space is riddled with politics, expectations, preconceptions, and a history. Our building, the mosque, our country, our world. The state possesses all and the performer merely possesses his performance. But within his performance, he finds power. In his essay, “Enactment of Power: The Politics of Performance Space,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o analyses the power of performance within a state controlled space, and this prompt us to discuss the power that our art, as performers and theatre makers, has in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, and at NYU.
Last month we performed “The Odyssey” at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Thinking about performance space, the politics of a place like Manarat are unavoidable. Located twenty minutes away from downtown Abu Dhabi, the high art gallery can only be accessed by car. This already limits the audience to a specific social status and economic strata. Once there, it is clear that this kind of place is catered to the expatriate population and the Emirati elite, and that families, high society couples, and tourists are its main population. All in all, Manarat is a specific kind of place, the kind of place that we, as New York University in Abu Dhabi students, are used to; and the kind of place where we “belong” as private-education-scholarship-global class-citizens. And so, it is only obvious that our yearly student production should take place there. Or is it? This touches upon Ngugi’s politics of space, our university’s politics, and my own ideas of what theatre should do. If the power to instill change through performance is directly determined by the place of the performance, what is the change we are creating by performing a heteronormal love story about a royal family’s journey home through invasion and conquest in high class gallery in Abu Dhabi? I’m puzzled. To our credit, or, Ruben’s credit actually, the production made a especial invitation to our cafeteria friends who would have otherwise not witnessed the work.
But still. What is the purpose of art? What should theatre do in a community? Yes, we should be remembered; but not for an aesthetic choice, or for an okay performance, but for enacting change, and inspiring, and utilizing our tools to affect a society. I wonder how much “The Odyssey” did to invite reflection, or how much it identified a feeling that our society begged to be voiced.
This brings me to a slightly egoistic reflection on “Headspace: a play,” our latest attempt at making theatre. When we were discussing the purpose of the project, and the venue, questions about the purpose of art came up. I want to make art that is necessary. Not because I deem it important, but because once made, we sit back and recognize it as a communion, a shared moment we needed to experience together. The most rewarding moments of this project were those where we asked the hard questions, were we listened to the heartbreaking answers, and where we opened the floor for conversation. I don’t think we succeeded in properly inviting discussion, or change, but I feel that we introduced a new vocabulary, a way of looking at art and it’s function. Working with people who hadn’t done theatre before in itself enacts change. It’s like the crawling, I guess. By inviting people to physically change their routine, and do yoga and memorize lines, they change their bodies, and change their way of looking at this school, and this society. The two actors that memorized lines the fastest were a chemistry major and an nyu tisch student. This is the kind of theatre I want to make; where a politics major is asking me about performing religion and the politics of costume; where we don’t know anything but create so much. This was a flawed project in many, many ways, starting by the parameters I gave it some six months ago; but it was correct in its core, and I saw it change people. One of the things I am proud of is of the space we chose for it. Between MPR and Common Ground, we discussed how MPR would be more aesthetically pleasing and allow for more audience. But Common Ground was our space; our community’s common ground, where debates around student policies, and Open Mic nights happened. It made sense that this was our space for performing our realities, our community.
My two theatre experiences this semester have made me reconsider (or reinforce) my beliefs on theatre and why I do what I do (or want to do what I want to do.) There must be a way in which theatre can be a community service and a powerful aesthetic experience at the same time. And I may not know all of the tools for this, but at least for now I know that a big step is choosing the correct space.