“You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor,” Louise Bourgeois once said. “It’s the anger that makes me work.”1 The two main areas of life that fuelled her anger were fighting for her place as a woman in a male-dominated twentieth-century art world and the deception she experienced within her family. Bourgeois harnessed her anger, took up her “emotional tool” and deployed it to better realise her craft.
Bourgeois is not alone in channelling her emotions into her craft; indeed, “anger” is not a foreign concept to artists. Neither is it considered a feeling that artists should avoid or fear. Instead, anger is often seen as the wake-up call; the summons to create; the very material from which to make something transformative. And this being the case, artists – especially socially engaged or participatory artists – can point us towards a purposeful working out of our rage.
Augusto Boal (1931–2009), the Brazilian theatre director famous for his revolutionary work with oppressed communities, established forms of theatre in the 1970s and 80s used by participatory theatre makers all over the world. Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, Legislative Theatre all begin with an expression of the world as it is, before leading the community on a creative journey that culminates in a foretaste of the world as it should be. And this is no fairy tale. Boal’s work began with simple, spontaneous neighbourhood performances in the street, during which the audience was permitted to stop the action and make suggestions to the actors for what they should do next. We learn that Boal’s methodology of Forum Theatre, in which the audience not only interrupts but takes the place of the performer to move the story along, was born from a moment of anger: “… [I]n a now legendary development, a woman in the audience once was so outraged the actor could not understand her suggestion that she came onto the stage and showed what she meant.”2
Forum Theatre as we now understand it was created by a spark of anger catapulting a woman from her role as spectator to that of actor/writer. (This, in turn, gave birth to the term “spect-actor”.) “In breaking down barriers between audience and performer… Boal [exemplifies] an ethos based in political and sociological principles calling for a reversal of the dynamics of oppression.”3 The result of this emotion fuelled intervention resulted in the evolution of a radical theatre practice that has challenged injustices in peoples’ lives, communities and the systems that oppress them ever since.
We should also pay attention to the environment that permitted that woman to act – created by Boal, the artist. The “invited space”4 allowed her to participate as a decision-making citizen in a reimagining of her situation. Socially engaged artists offer not simply an example of how their own anger informs their work, but also a model for creating civic fora where civilians’ anger at the injustice they experience can be played out.
Community organising too relies on public spaces where oppressive systems are challenged and new ways of living can be imagined. While community organisers might not consider their work to be art, “Topflight organizers are more like poets, symphony conductors or other creative artists…”5 In order to enable civilians around them to realise the world as it should be, performance and storytelling are essential components of actions and assemblies. Indeed, humour and satire were key techniques employed by the founding father of community organising in the US, Saul Alinsky, citing ridicule as “man’s most potent weapon”, in his fourth rule of power tactics.6 Humour, he said, “… is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously.”7
As well as creativity and humour, community organisers, like participatory artists, consider anger a vital tool to challenging systemic injustices. On addressing the qualities needed for an organiser, community organiser Edward T. Chambers writes, “Organizers need some anger… Anger is your engine, and it resides below the belly button. It gets you going, compels you to challenge things as they are.”8 A community organiser moved to make the world a better place requires agility, artistry and anger in their belly. Without these, public life remains as it is and seeking the common good becomes a passive ideal.
When pursuing this notion of the transformational potential of anger, a familiar, ancient scene played out in public comes to mind. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.”9 In order for a person to fully participate in the Passover feast, an animal sacrifice had to be offered. Doves, at that time, were at the bottom of the sacrificial food chain so a person sacrificed a dove if they were poor, female or had a skin disease – in other words, unclean. If they had no dove, a dove had to be purchased from inside the Temple court, notably the area of the Temple kept for Gentiles and other outsiders. We recall that a particular currency was necessary to buy the sacrificial animals and money changers that day were charging extortionate rates to those who could least afford to pay. This scene of corruption was being played in God’s house.
We are told Jesus pushes over the traders’ tables and the sellers’ benches. In overturning the furniture, he is symbolically tearing down injustices in the very location that is destined as a place of sanctuary. For everyone. People of the wrong race, the wrong gender, with the wrong body from the wrong class. “Is it not written,” he cries in the midst of debris, upended tables, squawking and flapping birds, bleating goats, excrement and money covering the Temple floor, “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?”10 Then what happens in the aftermath of Jesus’ angry performance catches us by surprise: Matthew tells us Jesus did “wonderful things”, such as healing the blind and the lame.11 Instead of feeling alienated or wounded by his visible rage, these excluded people were compelled towards him. Voiceless and without status, they recognised in Jesus’ anger a longing for their restoration as civilians worthy to participate in the rituals of their faith and in the kingdom of God. Out of the mess created by Jesus in the Temple that day, a new order was being created.
Speaker and writer Austin Channing Brown writes, “Jesus throws folks out of the building, and in so doing makes space for the marginalised to come in… [H]is anger led to freedom – the freedom of belonging, the freedom of healing, and the freedom of participating as full members in God’s house.”12
If then we are keen to suppress anger, or pretend it isn’t there, we are wasting our time. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In your anger do not sin.”13 Note he says “in” your anger. It is a given that at times, we are going to be angry. This might be an uncomfortable thought if we have subscribed to a theology of “niceness”, so pervasive in areas of white western, Christian culture, where anger has been maligned as unseemly. So, to challenge our discomfort, and seize this emotion that has the power to bring down the strong and elevate the weak, we dwell on the story of that Passover day in Jesus’ life. And if we still don’t like the idea, as in so much of life, let us be guided by art and the artists whose minds gladly understand the gift of anger and whose hands are committed to shaping it for the world that is to come.
Rachel Griffiths is a freelance theatre practitioner with extensive experience of making theatre workshops and projects with diverse communities. Much of her work takes place in London schools, often working with at-risk young people on issues of youth violence, consequences, choices, relationships. She is also a trainer in the corporate sector, using theatre skills to equip business executives in how to have more impact, improve their presentations, and use storytelling in their work.
1 Abigail Cain, “How Rage Can Lead to Creative Breakthroughs,” Art Sy, 19 November 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-rage-lead-creative-breakthroughs.
2 Doug Paterson, “A Brief Biography of Augusto Boal,” Pedagogy and the Theatre of the Oppressed, https://ptoweb.org/aboutpto/a-brief-biography-of-augusto-boal/, my italics.
3 Robert J. Landy and David T. Montgomery, Theatre for Change: Education, Social Action and Therapy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
4 Raji Hunjan and Soumountha Keophilavong, Power and Making Change Happen (Dunfermline: Carnegie Trust, 2010); as quoted by Chrissie Tiller in “Power Up,” Creative People and Places, 2018, https://www.creativepeopleplaces.org.uk/sites/default/files/Power_Up_think_piece_Chrissie_Tiller.pdf, 21.
5 Edward T. Chambers, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 110.
6 Ibid., 128. Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1971).
8 Ibid., 110
9 Matt. 21:12 (NIV).
10 Mark 11:17 (NIV).
11 Matt. 21:15 (NIV).
12 Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (London: Virago, 2020).
13 Eph. 4:26 (NIV).