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Behind the ART of Human Rights

By Alexandra C. Tartaglia, Contributing Writer

When “Witness Uganda” premiered last February at the American Repertory Theater (ART), it inspired passionate conversation—and even brought one audience member to tears. “I found myself laughing, and I found myself yearning, and I found myself crying. I saw it six times,” says Timothy P. McCarthy, a lecturer on history and literature and adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School. “I just loved it. I think it was a beautifully and powerfully crafted work of art.”

It was after experiencing “Witness Uganda” that McCarthy was inspired to begin a series of discussions about human rights. In collaboration with the ART and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, The ART of Human Rights explores an array of human rights issues—ranging from AIDS to African American civil rights to feminism—through conversations with leading artists in the field of human rights. The discussion series offers a way of looking at the role of theater activism and the continued relevance of the arts and humanities, and also presents the issues at hand in a new light.

Most human rights activists seek change through conventional means, but McCarthy believes that this can be limiting. “Often when you work with an established institution, whether it’s legal or political, it can be very frustrating because those institutions are not always set up to do the work of social justice,” he says. McCarthy sees art as a possible solution to the constraints of rigid institutions. “Art, unlike politics and policy, opens up a space for people to be inspired, for people to feel connected to one another,” he says. “It opens up a broader space, a more creative space, a more emotional space, a more democratic space.”

While McCarthy hopes the discussion series will expand the reach of human rights activism, the ART hopes the series will also highlight new possibilities for theater. “Theater can expand beyond the two-hour performance you see on the stage,” says Ryan McKittrick, director of artistic programs at the ART. “It’s what you carry out into the lobby, the discussions about what you saw. Even if the discussions happen months later.”

“Theater helps get people on same page, on an elemental level,” says Brendan Shea, a playwright who runs a partner program with The ART of Human Rights called Proclamation. Shea believes that art has the power to create “microcommunities,” unique groups of people who share a commonality. Under Shea’s guidance, 11 students from various Boston-area high schools collaborate on original plays about civil rights, with an emphasis on radicalism in American history. Using the improvisational exercises created by Shea as a launching point, the students use theater to express their shared passion for human rights. “Yesterday, they had to create a scene that contained different ingredients like silence or unison movement,” Shea says. “They had to express with their bodies what conformity meant to them.” For one group, conformity meant complying with the norms of marriage, and the group experimented with gay marriage. For another group, conformity meant labor rights and equal pay. “Certain theatrical elements help us connect emotionally in a way that just words or passionate conversation can’t quite do,” Shea says.

Ultimately, the series makes a case for the importance of the arts and humanities for the world at large. “Arts and the humanities are only on the wane when we turn away from them. They’re only on the wane when we make decisions to not fund them. They’re only on the wane when undergraduates decide they want to major in economics or something that is more practical because they’d like to get a job in a difficult economy,” McCarthy says.“I don’t want to live in a world where the arts and humanities die because we then die as a result of that. The denial of human rights is, at the end of the day, inspired in part by the inability to get along with each other, the inability to understand each other’s complexity and the inability to understand each other’s humanity. One of the things that help us understand and appreciate our humanity and recognize and respect it are the arts and humanities.”

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On CampusTheaterCampus Arts