May 11 - 26, 2013

An Immersive, Off-Site Theatrical Event

A World's Stage Production from Scotland
text by Stef Smith
conceived and directed by Cora Bissett
American Premiere

Confronting Contemporary Tragedies: A Scholar's Perspective

by Dani Snyder-Young

Why use theater to make social change? 

Artists and activists have been using theater for thousands of years to engage audience members in critical examination of contemporary social problems.. From Euripides' tragic mediation on the plight of female refugees in Trojan Women to Brecht's epic questioning of relationships between capitalism and war in Mother Courage to Kushner’s use of magic realism to interrogate our national character in Angels in America, theater has a long, rich history of political and social activism. Some political theater productions take a subtle approach nudge audience members towards critical thinking. Others wear their political agendas openly, confronting audience members with contemporary tragedies and asking the provocative question, ”What do you intend to do to right this wrong?” Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Stef Smith and Cora Beckett's Roadkill situates itself firmly within this tradition.

Many plays we now consider "classic" were, in their own time, asking their audiences to think critically about how power operates and to imagine what a just society should look like. Shakespeare's plays raised many of these questions for his audiences in early modern London. While scholars have come to no consensus as to his political agenda, the texts he leaves behind continue to carry political resonances. As these classic texts are interpreted for contemporary audiences, productions often invite us to draw connections between the stories represented onstage and the world in which we live. These contemporary productions of classic texts can create spaces for audience members to question the status quo as it relates to our own lives.

A work like Roadkill asks its audience to question the status quo, and their own roles in supporting it, in relation to stories about the world in which we all live. It represents a modern tragedy rather than a tragedy from a distant time and place. The principal difference between historic tragedy and contemporary tragedy: as global citizens, we have the power to work to make change in the world in which we live.

In an age of mass communication when we are constantly bombarded with texts and images, it can be difficult for activists to cut through the static to get the public to pay attention to a contemporary social problem. For this reason, many have turned to theater and live performance. Theater has unique properties as a storytelling medium: it is live and local, gathering people in person to experience a story together. This “liveness” opens up the potential for dialogue among people. It may enable them to build relationships and alliances around common concerns. Liveness can engage audience members in a collaborative act of witnessing; not only do we watch the story unfold onstage, but we watch each other watch as a contemporary tragedy unfolds.  In this, we can be made aware that we all have the privilege to leave at the end of the play--while the real people whose tragic stories are represented onstage do not share that luxury with us.

Going to the theater takes effort. Audience members plan in advance to attend, buying tickets, traveling to the performance space, and carving out a time to focus on a story. The effort required has the potential to make an event "special," heightening audience members' focus on the issues represented onstage. For a public that consumes stories of contemporary social problems on television or the radio, theater presents a radical departure. It cannot be turned off or paused; it does not play in the background while we engage in the other activities of our daily lives. An audience member’s horizon of expectation, when choosing to attend a theatrical event, is to go to the theater to engage with a story for a period of time with comparatively few distractions.

In an increasingly globalized world, Chicago Shakespeare Theater's World Stage offers the opportunity to Chicago audiences to think critically about our relationships to stories of contemporary social tragedies, engaging with questions of where we stand on the global stage--and what responsibilities we have to take action in the world beyond the theater.


Dani Snyder-Young is a Chicago-based dramaturg, director, and critic. She is the author of Theatre of Good Intentions: Challenges and Hopes for Theatre and Social Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2103) and Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she runs the BA Theatre Arts program.

Back to Roadkill

Additional Pages