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Art meets social justice in panel discussion

By Sabrina Pond

Section: Arts

October 17, 2014

As can be expected from a university that prides itself in social justice and the awareness of inequality, Brandeis’ fall musical “Spring Awakening” presented an open-panel discussion called “Where the Arts Meet Social Justice” on Oct. 16 in the Mandel Center for the Humanities. The conversation was held between the panel members—Professors Jennifer Cleary (THA), Adrianne Krstansky (THA), Dean of Students Jamele Adams and Joy Von Steiger, the psychological counseling center senior associate and clinical director—and the audience, some of whom were part of the “Spring Awakening” cast. The event was led by Rachel Liff ’16, who is also the director of the musical.

The main topics under discussion at the event were sexual and physical assault, abortion and suicide. The majority of the conversation centered on how art is used as a vessel to represent how these issues are prevalent in American society. In the opinion of the panelists, art utilizes personal narrative and presents widespread problems in such a way that the audience members may be more inclined to listen. As stated by Krstansky, “Art concerns itself with the metaphor, to the essence of something. We don’t have to be told how to think, how to feel or what to say.”

When art addresses a serious topic in an abstract way, it is interesting how the audience can understand the message and be moved, while statistics may not be received the same way because of the distance between the numbers and the audience. Though they are concrete facts, they can feel impersonal and detached. It is art that can tell a story and make those numbers a living, breathing reality.

This dialogue was related to the upcoming performance of “Spring Awakening” because of its risque nature and in-your-face attitude. The original play was written in the late 1800s, yet its age has not changed the fact that the rather controversial topics at force in this play are still scandalous today. The play will feature a racy sex scene on stage, as well as portrayals of suicide and masturbation. Some of the characters are even sexually abused, and one character is forced to get an abortion. To say the least, the performance will be chock full of scenes that bring to light certain topics that people would otherwise be difficult to discuss.

To start off the event, Liff asked questions regarding an example of theater or art that addressed social issues and had a profound impact on the panelist. Different plays were then discussed, such as “The Laramie Project,” a stinging play about a real-life hate crime committed against Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming. The play slowly revealed the events leading up to Matthew Shepard’s death through interviews. Another play titled “Through the Leaves” focused on the very unhealthy relationship between two characters, Martha and Otto. Domestic violence is explored through the play as both characters mistreat each other in ways that may be difficult to watch. This discussion helped to portray how art and theater have been used in the past to point out the faults in our society. The idea is that change cannot occur if there is no dialogue about the problem. It is only after openly stating the issue that action can occur.

One point of discussion focused on how these topics, considered to be very controversial over a century ago, are still being contentiously debated even today. As put forth by Cleary, “Why haven’t we solved all the issues of humanity?” Though a rather daunting question, the argument was settled when it was pointed out that as individuals, we are all trying to figure out how we fit in the world and to discover our identity. Art and theater, at the very least, can be used to represent these issues in such a way that small measures of progress can be made.

The event closed with a hopeful gaze into the future. The panelists explained how they hope theater and film, in the not-so-distant-future, will evolve to become more encompassing and diverse. There was talk of representing different bodied people, healthy relationships, those with disabilities and to allow women more diverse roles in theater and film. Considering how American society has developed these past few decades, it seems likely that progress is inevitable. Adams summed it up very nicely, stating, “We wouldn’t have had this conversation 50 years ago—three women and a black dude.” Though it may be dismaying to look at the progress that should be made, it is reassuring that we have at least come this far.

Tympanium Euphorium’s “Spring Awakening” will open on Thursday, Nov. 13 and will show through the weekend. Tickets are available in the SCC box office or online at the Brandeis Tickets page.

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