Molly Hagan on theater and mutual aid

a guest essay

Molly Hagan has written here before about the prison industrial complex and abolition. That essay and bibliography felt crucial, even thrilling, to include here—not only because it’s the artist’s job to imagine new forms and new worlds, but also because the very same crisis of imagination that’s kept the PIC alive—along with the MIC, corporatism, for-profit medicine, all of it—has calcified the cultural institutions that can poison artists’ lives and neuter their work.

We See You White American Theatre has been the boldest and most extensive effort I’ve seen to change this ecosystem. In its survey of structural racism, the document raises a breadth of concerns—from psychological dynamics in acting schools and rehearsal rooms, to issues of family planning and work-life balance, to destructive economic and personnel structures—with a level of specificity and prescriptive urgency that made it exhilarating to read. Finally, some real iconoclasm. A meaningful blow to what had seemed like an industry-wide reverence for The Establishment in all its mediocre, soul-killing forms.

It’s significant that the first people I sent the link to were a handful of artistic directors. At the time, I made a quick calculation—whom do I know who is best positioned to make budgetary and structural changes?—knowing that artistic directors and the institutions they run play an outsized role in theatre’s political economy. I felt responsible for adding my voice to the others who were, surely, entreating the same handful of people.

Below, Molly argues that we need institutions—their hierarchies and credentials, their pieties, their competitions and economies—even less than we think. Moment by moment, we can train our focus: away from longstanding establishmentarian loyalties, towards care for ourselves and each other, for our work and the people we make it for.


ABOLISH THE THEATER

As an abolitionist, I can imagine a world in which people can bring about an end to the death penalty, and police and prisons. It shouldn’t be so hard to say I want a new way of making art.

If there were ever a field that should build solidarity but doesn’t, theater would be it. Playwrights are encouraged to compete for the privilege of association. Our bios are lists of institutions from which we borrow value; each name grants you permission to call yourself an artist. The structure of the industry invites exploitation and mistreatment. It limits the art we choose to make, as well as our relationships to one another.

Each insular world—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—is beholden to the larger one, and reinforces the injustices that shape it. Last summer, hundreds of people pointed out the obvious: the theater world is systemically racist. Theaters scrambled to respond, and continue to come up short, as they tend to believe that a diverse staff and a diverse roster of plays are an end in itself. If this were true, We See You White American Theater would have a list of demands that is less than 30 pages long. These demands paint a pretty extraordinary picture of racism, exclusion and exploitation, but alongside it appears a tantalizing negative image. For me, it begs the question: Why are we asking institutions to be less racist, less sexist, less ableist, less greedy, instead of building the kind of inclusive structures we actually want?

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about artist-led theater companies. (Why are creative industries so rarely creatively organized?) I’m talking about mutual aid. 

Mutual aid is an action—I help you; you help me—and also a philosophy with scientific roots. Peter Kropotkin, a 19th-century Russian prince, came up with the term to describe a phenomenon he saw throughout the natural world. He was frustrated by how people were interpreting the work of Charles Darwin, and their singular focus on competition. While Kropotkin saw plenty of examples of competition, or “mutual contest,” in nature, just as plentiful, he wrote, were examples of mutual aid. Mutual aid is not an expression of love or sympathy, or even empathy, Kropotkin wrote; it is an instinct for community survival. 

Of course, humans also practice mutual aid, and during the pandemic, people spontaneously organized to support one another when the government would not. Overnight, my neighborhood formed a network to provide rent relief and deliver groceries; we gained a homeless outreach program and a handful of new, major food distribution sites that are, unsurprisingly, busy to this day. In the book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes about the strange euphoria that comes when a group of people unite in common purpose. She argues that the feeling springs from the fulfillment of desires we didn’t even know we had. Everyday life is violent. There is homelessness, poverty, policing, prisons. This violence overshadows what seems less important by comparison: everyday life is also shallow. Shallow in the sense that it does not recognize the depth of emotion or purpose of which we are all capable. This lack, Solnit writes, is “a slower, subtler disaster all its own.” In this view, mutual aid seeks to build solidarity in the event of disaster, while also addressing the “ongoing disaster” of everyday life. 

Mutual aid reorients our way of thinking about the world from a place where authorities call the shots and grant permission, to a place where we are capable and effective agents of ourselves. Seen from this angle, our current efforts to transform the theater world are not utilizing all of the tools we have at our disposal, and frankly, render our actual engagement with that world pretty shallow. The more I hone my politics, the more I wonder why the exhausting drudgery of “being a playwright” is siloed from every other facet of my existence, including my actual writing. I would argue that it's because to be a playwright today is to perform a role created by institutions who have defined every part of the art-making process. Sure, you can write a play outside of the development model—but the industry is built in such a way that you must engage with it anyway. I can only speak for myself, but most of the time I feel like I’m applying to opportunities, not because they meet an actual need, but because I’m supposed to. To build a truly inclusive system, we have to recognize that each individual artist has their own specific needs.

What if instead of looking to institutions for support to make things, we looked to each other? In the 1970s, Alice Walker and June Jordan formed a group of Black women writers called The Sisterhood. “We felt that it was very important that Black women writers know each other, that we understood that we were never in competition for anything, that we did not believe in ranking,” she said. “We would not let the establishment put one of us ahead of the other.” 

Built in solidarity, the group played an important if sometimes quiet role in the women’s lives. Toni Morrison pointed out that most of them were single mothers: “If you had to finish writing something, they’d take your kids, or you’d sit with theirs. This was a network of women. They lived in Queens, in Harlem and Brooklyn, and you could rely on one another. If I made a little extra money on something—writing freelance—I’d send a check to Toni Cade [Bambara] with a note that said, ‘You have won the so-and-so grant,’ and so on. I remember Toni Cade coming to my house with groceries and cooking dinner. I hadn’t asked her.” 

The Sisterhood was not a 501(c)(3). It did not fundraise, or publish the work of its members. Its only purpose was support—dynamic support, because one’s needs change—and that support facilitated some of the best work of the 20th century. The Sisterhood was also not built to be scaled or sustained beyond the immediate needs of the women who participated in it. Their first allegiance was to one another, not the perpetuation of the group itself. Inherent in this arrangement is the acknowledgement—so lacking from our current structure—that one’s artistic practice cannot be separated from one’s lived life. 

The formation of small, dynamic mutual aid relationships among artists across disciplines may seem insufficient to address the problems we face. Obviously, I disagree. I think that transforming our relationships to one another is a genuinely radical first step toward the transformation of the theater world as a whole. If we can begin to take back the process of making art, we can begin to build power. While we should continue to demand reform from major theaters, we should do so with the awareness that reforms necessarily center the institution of which the reforms are being demanded. We empower an unjust system when we agree to only engage with it in one way: by asking it to change. People think that abolition means destruction; it doesn’t. Abolition, as the phrase goes, means creation. It means building the world we want in order to render the old one obsolete. 


cover image: detail from Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity