Slate Blog: If Theatre Could Change The World, Hassun El Zafar

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

On Sunday 27 October, I had the pleasure to deliver a theatre masterclass to some incredible artists in my hometown of Sheffield. The title of the class was “If theatre could change the world…” and the aim was to explore to fusions of activism and stories told through art.

I often get asked about my fusion of activism with art. Do I expect people to learn something from seeing my art? To educate them on situations which activists would march for? 

The frank answer is I don’t expect anything. Each person comes with a unique set of experiences and will therefore relate to any art piece in a different way. I do, however, aim to tell stories that expand audience’s knowledge of different experiences, perspectives and phenomena. Maybe the stories can sow a seed of curiosity, or doubt, or possibility. Maybe it’s a success to just make people think more about a certain situation more than they had before.

What audiences choose to do with the seed our art may sow in them may be beyond our control, but the stories we choose to tell, that can be in our control.

We choose which stories to tell, how we tell them and who we tell them to. And in a world filled of globalized corporate capitalism, almost every item around you has some link to an injustice somewhere. From the clothes we wear being stitched by a child in South Asia getting paid less than five pence an hour. Or the coltan metal in our phones being sourced from the war-tone Congo. Or the supermarket fruit we buy being mass-produced for large companies by farmers who struggle to eat themselves. Or the plastic bag you carry you items home with, formed by a natural process lasting billions of years, with microscopic plankton dying in the oceans floating down to the depths as marine snow, only to be dug up as crude oil by fossil fuel companies hell-bent of making money at the cost of the only planet we could ever call home.

And as if that was not enough, the human stories behind the figures and percentages we throw around in activist discussions. The story of the child forced to arrive in this country at the back of a lorry. Or the single-mother facing the brunt of austerity. Or the East-European family being scapegoats for problems of Brexit Britain. Or the bread-winning father struggling with mental health issues with no one to turn to. Maybe, within the responsibility of an artist to speak truth to power, we must humanize the dehumanise, make the visible the invisible, give voices to the voiceless.

As artists wanting to speak truth to power, perhaps we also hold some responsibility to keep alive the progressive achievements by pioneers and collective movements whose legacy which we reap the benefits from; the fight for freedom from imperialist empires & fascism, the birth of a welfare state, the chartists, the trade unionists, the civil right movements, the medical advancements, the art of idegionous peoples and the contributions to literature by working class men and women who were continually shut out from the doors of establishments.

Throughout every age of mankind, stories are powerful. They appeal to the hearts and minds of people, they are be remembered, retold and reconciled with. They make people discover, uncover and relive moments of their lives which meant something they never thought before. They allow people to unravel, escape and believe in things they’d deemed improbable.

Theatre is one of the oldest mediums in which stories have been told. It has withstood the advent of books, radio, TV, cinema and mobile entertainment. Some say it holds a unique intimacy with audience members which triggers an infectious imagination. Either way, it can only survive meaningfully with the continuation of artists pushing its boundaries through the stories & experiences they bring to the stage.

Delivering this masterclass, interacting with fantastic artists connected by Slate, seeing their skills and artistic genius made me think… Perhaps theatre alone can’t change the world, but the stories told in theatre, and the artist who tell them maybe can. 

Blog by Hassun El Zafar

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Hassun El-Zafar is an award winning science communicator, producer and arts director whose directorial credits include Sheffield Black History Month (2015-17), What Is This Thing Called Science? (Hallam Theatre, 2017), Insectology (Forge Valley Theatre, 2018) and My Name is Rachel Corrie (Theatre Delicatessen, 2019)He is motivated to create art which expands audiences’ knowledge on global phenomena and event which stimulate curiosity and social action. 

Slate Blog: If Theatre Could Change The World, Hassun El Zafar