Renowned playwright Oscar Wilde once said, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Amongst the issues that theatre addresses, homelessness seems to be recurring throughout various works. However, its various depictions on stage not only give audiences an entertaining experience but also leaves them with alternative perspectives on the issue as a whole, for better or worse.
Community theatre is known for being a successful outlet for actors to practice their craft and put their name out there. It’s also acknowledged for being a platform on which communities can address issues like homelessness with an audience in an intimate setting.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the theatre company Cardboard Citizens has been making theatre with, as well as for, individuals experiencing homelessness. The company has been doing this for over 25 years. The productions put on by Cardboard Citizens depict fictional experiences of homelessness that draw from the reality of the actors’ lives and are presented in one of the most traditional theatre forms: Theatre of the Oppressed.
Theatre of the Oppressed, popularized by Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal, uses theatre to promote social change by allowing a live audience to stop a show when they feel a character is being oppressed. Once the show has been stopped, the audience is left to provide alternatives or solutions to the specific situation being presented. From there, the cast is expected to improvise to show how the changes the audience made affects the outcome of the story.
Presenting the issue of homelessness in this way allows audiences to view those without homes as people who need to be and can be helped. It leans very heavily on the emotion of pity and allows people in the audience to practice developing solutions with fictional characters, but are also expected to continue and reflect such conversations in their daily life outside the theater.
Similarly, the Seldom Seen Actors from California put on stories that are direct representations of the actors’ lives under homelessness with scripts that they wrote themselves. However, instead of depending on pity from the audience, the works of Seldom Seen Actors choose to emphasize the more brutal truths of their previous experiences with homelessness
These works depend more on the shock factor being met by an audience to realize the shortcomings individuals experiencing homelessness could face such as drug addiction, lying, cheating, stealing, and sometimes even leaving their children. In this way, theatre acts as a coping mechanism for those without homes who have had their own share of bad experiences.
Although, these works are not meant to diminish or degrade the overall character of someone who is homeless, but intended to acknowledge that they are real people who may or not have made mistakes just like any other person does. This reestablishes their humanity and individuality, two very important aspects that are often forgotten when addressing the issue of homelessness.
On the other hand, mainstream theatre’s depiction of homelessness is a whole other playing field with much more potential of negative consequences. Works of mainstream theatre rely on a long-established caricature of someone without a home that tends to play more into the stereotypical lens of the homeless experience.
For example, the Tony-award winning musical “Rent” by playwright Jonathan Larson tells the fictional story of individuals living in New York on the brink of homelessness in the 80s during the AIDS epidemic.
Instead of homelessness being properly fleshed out and explored, the audience is left with a superficial romanticization of the experience of being on the brink of homelessness. On top of this, the musical nature of the show (singing and dancing) masks the issue making it seem lighter than it really is. Because homelessness is not the main issue being addressed here, it becomes lumped in for audiences to consider as a second-thought and is eventually buried under the mountain of other issues being addressed in the show as a result.
Aside from romanticization, mainstream theatre works also depend on the mythicization of homelessness for entertainment. “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, another Tony award-winning production, contains the character of a woman experiencing homelessness that appears for only one scene.
On top of depicting her as clinically insane for comedic purposes, Kushner also uses her character as a literary device to drive the plot forward, having her use riddles to communicate with another character who benefits from hearing her prophecy. This representation of homelessness, specifically, diminishes the humanity of someone without a home by putting people living with homelessness on a supernatural pedestal that already plays into the negative stereotypes that they are difficult to communicate with because they are clinically insane.
In the end, theatre remains a dynamic performing art form that allows us to shift the public perception of homelessness as we see fit, with both positive and negative consequences. It also acts as an outlet for those living with homelessness to help them come to terms with their experiences in a safe and healthy manner.