As I left a post show discussion of In Darfur recently, one of the audience members grabbed my arm and said, “You are a theater company with a conscience and I appreciate that.” It is something I appreciate too. I feel very fortunate to have worked with TimeLine over the years first as a dramaturg, then as an Associate Artist.
The benefit of having a long relationship with a theater company is that you get to have the shared history of having seen and worked on a variety of shows, and you begin to trace the threads of certain ideas through different plays and different seasons. I have worked with TimeLine long enough now that I have my personal timeline of information and conversations I have had with actors, directors and audiences. I imagine this is true for many of our longtime audience members and subscribers as well. I thought it would be interesting to trace back through the history of some of the plays that led us to the current show and to the upcoming production of The Front Page.
In working on In Darfur, I thought back to several plays I have worked on for TimeLine. Pravda, the David Hare and Howard Brenton satire loosely based on Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the London Times, for instance. It was a darkly funny play that questioned just how much news we get if all our news comes from a handful of major media outlets. It also examined the sensationalizing of the news over substantive reporting.
I followed up this project with the world premiere of Martin Furey’s Shot by Chicago actress and playwright Maureen Gallagher. It looked at the sacrifices to mental health and physical safety made by photojournalists in South Africa covering the violence before the end of apartheid. That show featured massive projections (designed by Mike Tutaj, who also designed the projections in In Darfur) of photos that we were graciously given the use of by the photojournalists who covered the poverty, violence and hope in South Africa.
Just last season, I worked on The Farnsworth Invention, which examined the origins of the television, the power of a big media conglomerate (once again), the impact that television would have, and how the new media of television might be used in the future. This was followed up by the present season, when I’ve gotten to work on Frost/Nixon, which looked very closely at how television impacted and changed the political landscape as much as it looked at one of America’s greatest political scandals.
Finally, this brings me to In Darfur. So many times when I told people I was working on this project, they asked me how I could watch the show every night or how I managed the research. The truth is that it is horrifying to read about or see the violence that has shaken Sudan, but I think part of what the play urges us to do is not to look away but to witness and act.
In different ways, all these plays question our engagement in political and humanitarian issues around the world, how we educate ourselves, and the role of the media in disseminating this information for good or ill. These are questions that have not gone away but have appeared in different forms and places over time, and I appreciate getting to be part of the conversation through these productions over a number of years.
The arts often suffer from a negative stereotype of being self-absorbed or self-indulgent. I find the opposite is generally the case. The actors, most of whom have other jobs, come to the theater, and work to tell a challenging story night after night. A team of designers and staff support this work.
In another level of engagement with the issues surrounding Darfur, TimeLine has partnered with a number of non-profit organizations over the course of the run of In Darfur to both take donations for the organizations and to offer additional panels and guests who can provide insight into the story of Sudan that is still unfolding.
On a recent Friday, I got to visit high school classes with some of the gifted teaching artists who work with Chicago Public School students through TimeLine’s Living History Education Program. These classes are some of my favorite audiences to talk to not only because I am excited about young people experiencing theater, but also because their reactions to theater are so honest and genuine. It was exciting to engage with them on the current issues in Sudan.
These stories, these conversations, are still unfolding. We have been able to delve deeper at our post-show discussions during In Darfur, and I will be curious to be in the audience for The Front Page and add to this ongoing conversation about media and politics.
Maren Robinson is an Associate Artist at TimeLine Theatre. She has served as dramaturg for In Darfur and numerous other TimeLine productions.