Theater to Imagine Futures

Three Way Fight


Theater to Imagine Futures:
A Bright Room Called Day and the 2020 Election

Guest post by Taiga Christie

Tony Kushner’s play A Bright Room Called Day is about a group of five friends—artists and activists navigating Germany’s descent into fascism from 1932-1933. It follows Agnes, the least politically informed of the group, and the conversations among her friends in her apartment over the two years. While Agnes begins as a sympathetic character, her paralysis in the face of the Nazis’ rise to power complicates our feelings about her over the course of the play. During the second act, she watches as her friends and comrades flee Germany one by one to avoid persecution. Eventually she finds herself alone, still prey to the same inertia that bars her from meaningful action throughout the story.

Logo with text: "On the eve of the election Faultline presents a reading of Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day, a story of artists and activists surviving the rise of the Third Reich"

On October 30, 2020, my theater ensemble embarked on our first venture into virtual theater by staging a zoom reading of Bright Room. Faultline is usually about care work, performing in small, found spaces, mixing performers in with audiences, and intentionally sharing physical and emotional space. Our low-tech plays use salvaged materials to address themes of disaster, health justice, and leftist politics. In our work, we strive to help ourselves and our audiences find utopia in dystopia.

We had performed Bright Room once before, just days ahead of the 2016 election. We had used a small rehearsal studio over a converted warehouse in Portland, Oregon. Its brick walls, high windows and small, crowded feel made it fitting for a play that takes place entirely inside a single Berlin apartment. At the time, we were an ensemble of predominantly white artists in a liberal and relatively homogenous city. We saw this play as a cautionary tale. But most of us expected Trump to lose.

Instead, we all experienced the nightmare of the last four years. Kushner’s play—set in Nazi Germany, but written during the early years of the AIDS epidemic—has become a mirror to many aspects of our lives and our work. And so in anticipation of the 2020 election, we decided to revisit the play in order to learn from these brilliantly crafted, flawed characters and the ways they succeed and fail.

Virtual theater is not our normal. But what about 2020 was normal? The covid-19 pandemic forced us apart, made theater impossible. The coming election demanded we come together, made theater necessary. Our imperfect solution was an online performance, each actor alone in their home, imagining an audience, who would in turn imagine a shared stage.

The Reagan era and start of the AIDS crisis revealed one moment where swings to the right in the United States meant that we had lessons to learn from the history of Nazi Germany. The Trump administration combined with the covid-19 pandemic was another. There was something very fitting about performing a play during covid that takes place entirely within the walls of a single apartment. Like these characters, we’ve been living in isolation. Hannah Arendt, who is referenced in the play, argued that totalitarianism is driven in part by enforced loneliness. 

“Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance… Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.”

Theater has a long history as a tool for liberation, but also for suppression. In some eras it’s been an art form of the elite, in others of the revolution. Theater of the Oppressed, queer theater, theater for health and development have all contributed to revolutionary movements. At its best, theater is a tool for showing that whose story is told is an inherently political question. But it doesn’t feel like enough, in this moment, to put on plays. Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance: when an audience is allowed to feel closure, any momentum to create change outside of the theater is lost. Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.

Even Bright Room flirts with catharsis, giving Agnes some limited redemption at the end, when she shelters a fleeing communist. But I’d argue that the final scene—and its repeated refrain of “Now, before the sky and the ground slam shut, the borders are full of holes” (93)—is an antidote to the closure Brecht critiques. It urges its audiences to act. This is what brings me back to this play again and again over the years. (All pages references are to Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day [Broadway Play Publishing Inc., June 2015].)

Even Tony Kushner, in an updated version of Bright Room performed by The Public Theater in late 2019, transformed the story into one that is about Agnes’s personal survival, rather than the urgency of fighting the rising fascist movement. Watching this version a year ago, just before the pandemic began, I was horrified at how a story that speaks to me about collective responsibility had been twisted into a fixation on whether one relatively selfish character is able to save herself. If even the playwright can read this individualism into the play, how do we use theater as a tool for collective action? When is art able to change not just our emotional sense of responsibility, but our capacity to act?

Silhouette of guard towers, with cracks running across the image

Faultline’s partial answer to this question was to follow each act of Bright Room with a discussion with activists and scholars of contemporary fascist movements. In asking these panelists to discuss the play and the current political moment, we hoped to tie the emotions raised by the play to concrete thought and action. Our panelists—Robert Evans, Laura Jedeed, Kristian Williams, Shane Burley and others, facilitated by Katrina Enyeart—were chosen for their study of historical and contemporary fascist movements, their knowledge of white supremacy in the United States, and their ability to point out lessons from the play that are relevant today. They provided brilliant insight into the way characters in the play mirror our experiences today. Central to the discussion was the question of how these movements create appeal and recruit supporters. As Laura Jedeed said in discussion, “Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

If the play’s uneasy juggling of the audience’s sympathy and disgust has anything to teach us, I think it is that fascist movements grow in moments when basic human needs—from health to housing to community to social support—are broadly unmet. There are no Nazi characters in this play, not because they don’t exist, but because they aren’t the ones who need our attention. The people worth focusing on are the ones like Agnes, who react to their terror and the vast gaps of their unmet needs by waffling between feeble activism and silence. How do we reach each other when we fall into these patterns? How do we build counter-recruitment movements that prevent these characters from being pulled in by the right?

“Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

Another point of discussion, made by Robert Evans and echoed by others, was that fascism is a movement fixated on tearing down the current order to recover a mythologized past. It possesses no actual vision for the future, but instead relies, as Evans put it, on an “aesthetic of collapse.” We see this in fascist politics, but also in their art. The Futurist plays created during Mussolini’s regime display a fascination with machines, destruction of the current order, and a collapse of time to a state where the future is irrelevant.

Bright Room is also full of collapse—it is a brutally painted portrait of a movement, country, and generation collapsing under the weight of the Nazi regime. But in spite of this context, it manages to map a road to the future in the character of Annabella Gotchling. Gotchling is a working-class painter and activist who steadfastly refuses to give up her dedication to the antifascist movement. Her dialogue vacillates between jaded comments that “people are pigs” (27) and frustration with her friends’ wallowing in “this elegant despair” (39). But it is Gotchling, in the nightmare of 1933, who shows us the strongest vision of a possible future:

Pick any era in history, Agnes.
What is really beautiful about that era?
The way the rich lived?
The way the poor lived?
The dreams of the Left
are always beautiful.
The imagining of a better world,
the damnation of the present one.
This faith,
this luminescent anger,
these alone
are worthy of being called human.
These are the Beautiful
that an age produces.
As an artist I am struck to the heart
by these dreams. These visions.
We progress. But at great cost.
How can anyone stand to live
without understanding that much? (65-66)

Gotchling shows us the major difference that, at our best moments, separates the left from fascism. Even at a time when fascists and leftists are bent on tearing down the same state systems, the left must be motivated by visions of the future, in order to combat fascists’ fascination with the past. Like many characters in the play, today’s left often loses sight of the need to build towards a vision. But articulating a future is vital in building viable alternatives to fascism.

Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed movement, writes that theater is useless if you know the answer to a problem: if you know the answer, go enact it. Theater, he writes, is a tool for exploring problems you don’t yet know how to face. At its best, theater is a “rehearsal for life,” a chance to imagine the possible futures we could bring about, and what it takes to get there.

In a theater, or whatever donated space we find, Faultline can stage any vision of reality we choose—from post-earthquake Portland to 1930s Berlin. In doing so, we ask our audiences to try on this vision for themselves. Who would you be in this story? How would you respond? What would these circumstances bring out in you, and what does that show us about the systemic oppression at play? What future do we want, and what would it take to build it?

Towards the end of Bright Room, Gotchling persuades a reluctant Agnes to shelter a fugitive communist. In her desperation, Gotchling offers Agnes a deal:

If you say no to this, Agnes, you’re dead to me. And we both need desperately to keep at least some part of you alive. Say yes, and I promise to carry you with me, the part of you that’s dying now. I can do that, I’m stronger than you. Say yes, and I will take your heart and fold it up in mine, and protect it with my life. And someday I may be able to bring it back to you (87).

This is the left I identify with—the one that acknowledges the humanity, pain, and fear in the struggle for liberation. The one that creates a movement not out of fascination with decay, but out of small visions of connection and care that guide us through horror. Our ensemble of artists and health workers were drawn to Bright Room because, at its core, it is a play about building networks of care in the face of fascism. Choosing a vision of the future over a commitment to collapse. And pointing one another, even as the sky and the ground slam shut, to the places where the borders are full of holes.

Taiga Christie is a political theater director, street medic, rural health worker
and founding member of Faultline Ensemble.

Image credits

Both image designs by Katrina Enyeart.

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