by Emily Rose Prats
I’m not sure what I’m doing in BTWC. I’m here because I need a place to learn and to share, a place where the desire to do what’s right is a central premise, and not some naive ideal. But I don’t share the conviction that art—in the site-specific, downtown-Manhattan, blackbox-theatre sense—is an effective form of protest.
On the first day of acting class in college, our instructor asked what acting meant to each of us. I declared it to be a responsibility: introducing the audience to “the other,” building empathy, connecting one human to the next. But the longer I was in the business, the more I realized that for most actors, the vocation is a commercial one—whether by choice, because one’s goal is to make money, or by necessity, because a person needs money to live—and for most audiences, the arts are a brief escape from the burden of consciousness.
And even in a city like New York, where thought-provoking theatre happens nightly, and truly indie films screen regularly, it still takes work to find these dots of light among countless Disney spectacles and the plethora of film stars.
So I’m not sold on performance as protest.
Heck, I’m not even sold on protest as protest.
As a child, I was passionate about recycling (still am!) because my mom is awesome and encouraged me, and also because Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired a segment about it, and I never recovered. At the time, my hometown of Lexington, KY, had no recycling collection, and I couldn’t understand why, if we knew how much good it could do, everyone wasn’t all over it.
So I started a campaign in our neighborhood.
I left two paper shopping bags and a door-hanger sign on every front porch asking residents to fill up the bags with recyclables (one for paper, one for everything else) and set them on the porch the following Sunday morning, so my mom and I could collect them and take them to the recycling center outside of town.
No one did it.
Devastated, I wrote to Al Gore, and he wrote back telling me not to give up. So throughout middle and high school, I marched with Take Back the Night, I marched for immigrants’ rights, and I volunteered for various social justice programs.
Kentucky gave me an abstinence-only education.
Kentucky is down to a single abortion clinic—down, let’s be clear, from the two in operation during my youth.
Kentucky saw a 17% voter turnout during the last gubernatorial election, and ushered in a man who cut the state Parks & Rec budget to open up tax dollars for the infamous “Ark Park,” a religious theme park, and dismantled the state healthcare exchange, issuing what amounts to a death sentence for many poor Kentuckians.
Kentucky can’t stop electing Mitch McConnell to save its life.
Kentucky’s polls are the first to close on election day, so it’s always the first to turn red.
I wonder where all the protesting has gotten us. Maybe we’ve staved off far worse, but I can’t say, and that’s why I’m not sold on protesting.
But education—on that I’m sold. It’s protest and progress, roadblock and solution, negative and positive in a single action. And the power of art as education cannot be doubted.
That’s why I participate in BTWC book club: I want to be my most informed self. I want to absorb the experiences, the wisdom, the philosophy of the (artist-)writers we’re reading—and of my fellow BTWC members. Hearing someone else’s response to the book I, myself, have just read—and about which I might have had totally different thoughts, or even the exact same thoughts—gives me insights into the people around me, brings me closer to an “other,” draws me into a community.
Sharing perspectives broadens my understanding of the whole world. And it’s something I can do.
Books are accessible.
You don’t have to be part of a theatre scene, or call yourself an activist to read a book.
You can get most books at the library or second-hand, or even borrow from a fellow BTWC reader. You don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time—except the once, when we sit down to discuss.
You’re not relying on an agent to get you a job, or on your neighbors to do their part.
Reading is a solitary act of solidarity: Do it when, where, why, and how you want—only do it.
And the truth is: It works. I read, and I learn. It’s not a protest that might not achieve its goals. It’s not an initiative that might not pan out. It’s a beautiful guarantee: You read; you learn.
Even better, it makes the rest of the work easier—the sharing, the planning, the taking action—because it starts things off with a win. I learned something! I am more powerful now than I was before! I’m connected to this writer, and the BTWC readers in this room, but also to everyone else who’s read this book—ever!—and all those who will read it. Suddenly there are fewer strangers in the world, and you feel supported by a network this text has created.
So treat yourself to a win: Join our network. You have the power, and I promise you’ll learn something.
Emily Rose Prats is a dog-lover, Pride and Prejudice obsessee, and marketer raised in Kentucky and living in Brooklyn.
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