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Make Scott Pruitt’s Trail of Three Thousand Emails Infamous or, Theater for an Embodied Politic

Stages of Resistance
Heather Woodbury stand in the center of a sculpture that looks like you're staring into the center of metal, spiral staircase. Behind her are palm trees.
Photo by Chale Nafus

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!

Here’s what I see: the 3,000 emails exchanged between Scott Pruitt and Oklahoma fossil fuel honchos as embodied speech; performed by the banks of a coal-wasted stream and along the furrows of a neuro-toxin sprayed field; sung out close by the burnt remains of a derailed dirty crude oil train and called out on the cratered surface of a pulverized Blue Ridge mountaintop; read aloud in the backyard of a frontline family living beside an oil refinery. I hear these obscured exchanges between the self-avowed “Godly eco-steward” Mr. Pruitt and mining, chemical, and fossil fuel company actors, made noisy and infamous by we, the body polis: drawled by comic actors, spoken by farmworkers’ children, sung by an Appalachia blue-grass choir, rapped by a Flint poet to an interpretive dance. As the EPA brutally strips all health and environmental protections from America’s most vulnerable people, places and wildlife, Pruitt’s silent conversations with powerful destructive actors will be chanted, muttered, screamed, whispered, and grunted for all to hear and sink their teeth into.

I imagine these 3,000 emails as performance tableaux, witnessed by live audiences numbering, say, two to two hundred, documented by the camera and cumulatively displayed on our contemporary exhibition scaffold, the social-media thoroughfare.

I’d like to zero in on the following definitions of “pageantry”: an individual scene in a medieval mystery play; any of a series of moveable outdoor platforms on which a mystery play was performed; an outdoor drama celebrating an historical event or presenting, with local actors, the history of a community.

If you were to find a toxic site near you (not difficult!) and perhaps the beautiful body of a child, an animal, earth or water threatened by Pruitt’s brutal call for the removal of  their protections, and there, with local actors, you were to perform one of his 3,000 emails and, if I and 2,998 others were to join you, the 3,000 of us, bearing witness on the moveable public platform of the world wide web, will form a new kind of pageant.

Theater artists can regenerate pageantry. An in-spirited citizens’ pageantry, allied and alive with the love of beauty and humming with fidelity to the truth. This pageantry can help subvert, while utilizing, the totality of spectacle that has our discourse ensorcelled, the tech-engineered marketing circus, full of sound and fury, making us silent and branded, and signifying nothing.

Theater artists, or their close cousins, have already begun instigating this regenerative parade. It’s called the pussy hat. To my mind, the most effective theater of the year was the sea of pink hats, worn by hundreds of thousands of heads – which were attached to intellects, bodies, souls, experiences, across the nation and across the planet that simultaneously said, “Go ahead, make my day, grab this!” The two women who cooked up this prosaic costuming tactic turned grand poetic gesture were knitters and scriptwriters.

Now, the sight of this hokey, homespun, oddly medieval-ish hat, often found on the  heads of  middle-aged men or seasoned older women who are speaking at town halls,  marching in street protests, or asking pointed questions in congressional office doorways, has become a ubiquitous, humorous, heart-warming badge of courage.

Like the pussy hat, theater can be DIY, it can look about the same now as it would’ve looked 500 or even 5,000 years ago. It’s tactile, it’s colorful, it’s a humbly embodied metaphor that can function as poetry even as it keeps your ears warm.

I have many, perhaps too many, ideas for ways brigades of performing artists could take up pageanted arms. You probably do too.

So here are three, the first being where we might share and act upon these ideas:

  • a Facebook/Twitter page that would function as a kind of Situationist Clearinghouse, taking off from Guy De Bord’s idea that “the primary means of counteracting the spectacle is the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.” At #SitchClear we would propose ideas and find collaborators and post successful acts of imagination that make the situation clear. For example, the guy who brought red swastika-decorated golf balls to Trump’s Scottish golf course presser, scattered these on the ground and skedaddled, leaving Trump’s underlings to kneel down and scoop up Nazi-balls while the cameras rolled and Trump spoke. Another example: the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies who sang sacred songs and prayers as they were hosed down in sub-zero weather.
  • Mermaids and Mermen Unite! To Protect Water and Children. This is an ideal brigade to form where I am, in Los Angeles, given the hundreds of miles of shoreline and urgent threat to the life of the ocean created by fossil fuel pollution. We could join the frolicking throngs on the strand, costumed as Merfolk, as we interacted with ocean-lovers about how to protect it. Specifically, we could work to stop the expansion merger of the Tesoro and BP oil refineries, which would form the largest petroleum refinery on the entire West coast, lock-in dirty tar sands and Dakota pipeline crude infrastructure and further sicken people in frontline neighborhoods. But water is everywhere and our lakes, rivers and groundwater are threatened by crude oil spills, mining, factory-farm, chemical and pesticide poison, so there is much work for Merpeople to do. We could have chapters just about anywhere.
  • In the same spirit, theater troupes, you could take pledges of resistance, devising ways to dramatize and costume, to embody what you wish to resist and to protect, as your band participates in an act of civil disobedience at an ICE arrest or speaks at a public hearing.

To close, I don’t want to seem to propose we abandon the black box, our dark and luminous home where lives are channeled and transmuted, intimate worlds are collectively breathed and felt as we co-create them with the audience. Pageantry isn’t all we are capable of and if our job is to make protest be perceived as hilarious and/or deeply moving, to make it viscerally irrefutable, visually indelible, then we must find sustenance and inspiration in our sacred space, that musty old black box. A sentence in Naomi Klein’s ground-altering synthesis This Changes Everything struck me as particularly salient: that we “lack the collective space in which to confront the raw terror of eco-cide” and that “in order to accomplish deep social change new stories must be told to replace the ones which have failed us.”  Theater artists can make that space, we are capable of summoning stories that will open humanity to the deep mourning and brave laughter people must experience together, in order to acknowledge and to act.

Maybe the black box could be aired out a little, while still keeping its contours of intimacy and auditory attention. Might we return to theater’s origins in caves, tents and round campfires at encampments and vigils, in the many resistant places springing up that Naomi Klein collectively describes as “Blockadia.”?

In truth, I’m not sure how it can be done. I only know it feels good to keep making up stories and acting them out for whomever is still there. Meanwhile, I’m joining the parade. Write me.