Skip to content

Theatre faculty member Dani Snyder-Young has always been fascinated by the impact theatre has on its audiences. She recently sat down with us to discuss her new research on how theatre can be used to intervene in racism and how this specific type of theatre affects the audiences that see it.

Tell us about the research project you are working on.

I am writing a book on theatrical interventions in white supremacy. So, when we go to make a play and we produce it in a mainstream professional theatre, there’s an audience that comes to see it, and that audience nationally is predominantly white, middle class to affluent, demographically is older and is more female on average. So, when we make a play to intervene in racism, what are we doing to those people who really come to the space?

It started in Chicago, before I was here, through 2013-2015. Over and over again I would watch these nuanced, sophisticated plays that were trying to intervene in particular aspects of white supremacy and the play would have a clear point of view that was arguing for equity and inclusion in convincing ways. And then, a lot of these performances would include post performance talk-backs, and after the show I would watch white audience member after white audience member say ‘I loved the show!’ and then tell a personal story that negated the message of the play.

At first I was so agitated by these post-performance conversations, I had to back up as a scholar and say, ‘So this is aggravating me, but why is it happening?’ It’s not just happening at one play… I’m watching it happen over and over again. Is it specific to Chicago? Is it specific to this historic moment 2013-2015, where we have a black president? What is it about theatre audiences that is making it so that the artists are trying to intervene in racism and yet audience members are walking away with a supported, bolstered sense that they are good people because they saw the play- without having changed.

So were audience members leaving the show without actually understanding the play?

They think they understand the play but they didn’t change in the way the play seemed to want them to change. That had me wondering when are plays able to make those kinds of interventions- and when they are, what are the artistic strategies? So, I started asking those questions and there was this rupture moment in November of 2016, when Trump was elected. For a lot of progressive, affluent, white people, this was a shocking realization; they realized the world is oppressive.

There was certainly an idea surrounding the 2016 election that “this isn’t actually going to happen.”

Right! And people actually had to stop and say ‘the world is different than I thought.’ It was because the world is set up in segregated bubbles. And if the segregated bubble you live in is pretty comfortable, it’s hard to remember on a day-to-day basis that that’s not the real world. That’s just your world. So, there’s this audience that goes to the theatre that wants to have conversations, and wants to understand what they can do to make the world more equitable and inclusive. These theatrical events I’m watching this year in particular operate as pedagogical spaces. What are these different theatrical productions doing to amplify the power of the play? To really help move the ball forward to change people’s hearts and minds to get them to make change in the world outside of the theatre.

A lot of people participate in theater to see change happen, and do something that allows for people to gain new understandings and perspectives. What happens when it does not work? 

I’m looking at what artistic strategies seem to be able to amplify the interventionist efforts. When there are moments where that seems to fail, what are the obstacles? What’s happening when it seems like audience members are walking out the door fully comfortable and complacent, like they have done something simply by seeing the play? At their worst, these events enable the comfortable to stay comfortable. They don’t just not work, but they actively sustain the status quo by giving people who have the cultural capital to go to the theatre even more cultural power to be able to go into the world and say ‘I did a good thing; I am a good person. I saw this anti-racist play.’

When art is able to operate as an intervention, the mechanisms by which it does that are principle acts that are indirect and individualized and idiosyncratic. There’s not a one-to-one ‘I will know that I ended racism with my play;’ that’s not what anybody thinks they’re doing or what anybody wants to do. But there can be a purpose, like ‘I want white people to be able tolerate dissensus and discomfort or I want the white people in the audience to be able to identify their white privilege.’

Do you think that art, and theatre, present especially effective ways to tackle the issue of internalized racism?

I think the question to ask is, “under what conditions and what kind of art?” So sometimes, but sometimes it gets even more blocked. The way audience members receive plays, it has as much to do with what the audience member expects as what the play itself is doing. I’m learning, sometimes along with theatres that have already done really robust studies on their audiences. For example, I’m working with the American Repertory Theater (ART), and they are doing The White Card in collaboration with ArtEmerson. The White Card is selling like hot cakes and so now it’s an event, and what does it do to audience expectations now that it’s this sold out thing that you can’t get tickets to? I will only be able to find out when I see the play itself!

What is your research process like?

Right now, I am working with three CAMD students as my research assistants: Pablo Hernandez Basulto, Liam Hofmeister and Amos Nasongo. Together, we are conducting straight qualitative field research that focuses on participant observations. We attend, participate, and observe. A participant observer is not an unbiased third party; we are part of the event. People react to us and our bodies. We disclose what we’re doing when we have any sort of discussions with the people around us; people have to know why we’re there. And, we take no notes.

So, we participate, keep track of what happens in as much detail in our memory as we can keep track of, and then we go home and write field notes. We write up a narrative description of what happened as best we can remember, recognizing that our interpretive systems are fallible, that our memories are fallible, that we have biases, and that our presence in a space changes it. Then, we write analytic memos where we try to assign meaning to the things that we saw. Then, when we have chunks of data, when we have field notes across multiple events, analytic memos across multiple events, we go back and we look for codes. We look for themes, things in common and things that disrupt patterns.

One of the reasons I am so excited to work with research assistants on this particular case study is that people respond differently to me than they do to college students. We are all in different bodies and we are all in different places. I was at an event at the A.R.T. recently, and noticed the people who sat down to talk to me were similar to me in many ways. Does that mean that those women wouldn’t sit down and talk to Pablo? Who are people gravitating toward?  That’s just one of the filters that the material goes through. Might there be a pattern about what each of us starts to look at? Maybe, but I am careful not to presuppose what’s going to happen because we do not know.