Individualism at Play in Terror: Contemporary Lessons in Theater

By: Vanessa Garcia / Feb 13, 2017

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A week ago, I saw a play, and I’m still thinking about it. This hasn’t happened in a long time. The play was Terror by best-selling author and lawyer, Ferdinand von Schirach. I’m not the only person this play has struck a chord with - fifty-nine theatres programed the show during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, from Berlin to Tokyo to Miami (where I saw it at Miami New Drama, and where it will play until February 19th).

The premise is as follows: A military pilot has shot down a hijacked airliner carrying one hundred and sixty-four passengers. She’s done this to prevent the plane from hitting a stadium of 50,000 people, who have no idea the plane is headed straight for them. In shooting down the plane, and killing the hijacker along with the innocents on board, however, our pilot, now on trial, disobeyed superior orders not to shoot.

So now the question is: Is she guilty or not guilty?

The show plays out as a courtroom drama. Each audience member receives a set of cards with their program (one reads “guilty,” the other, “not guilty”), and with these, each audience member exercises their “vote.”

It’s this, I believe, the fact that the show’s outcome is in your hands as an audience member, that has been sending ripples around the world. It’s important to note that this is not a gimmick, it’s, instead, a seed that goes back to the core of art, theatre, and democracy - a democracy that’s currently being put to the test in the United States and around the world, which is what makes the play important. Current.

During the first act, we the audience (we, the jury) listen to opening statements by both prosecutor and defense attorney. We listen to testimony, and we hear from the pilot herself. We listen to the judge, who reminds us that “law and personal morality must be kept separate.” We listen to questions about the value of human life - whether one life weighs more than any other. Philosophies mount and angles spin, helping to mold your stance, guiding each person to their place on the spectrum: Is our pilot a criminal or a hero?

For me, it was very clear that she was guilty. She asserted her own individuality or ego above a line of command that perhaps had more information at hand that she did, placing herself above the greater good. For me, as I watched, I couldn’t help but think of president Trump, signing one executive order after another, ignoring due process, and creating what Boston College history professor, Heather Richardson, signaled to in a viral Facebook post as a “shock event.” As I experienced the play, I thought about how extreme individualism holds the potential, in other words,to kill democracy.

I, however, was not in the majority. My audience in Miami Beach voted not-guilty, as did, per the play’s website, the majority of audiences across world. Out of 968 performed trials, 91.6% churned out a verdict of not guilty. This seems to show a leaning toward placing personal morality and personal codes above the law. Something which, paradoxically, points to the fragility of democracy itself. Or, perhaps, even more to the point, to the complexity of individualism within the American system.

Because, perhaps, in fact, I’m wrong — and here’s where things start to spin again. Perhaps the only way to fight the tyranny of ego and/or individualism is to assert more democracy, more power to the people, more individuality. It’s complicated, you see. It goes in circles. And the action and/or drama happens in your mind. Your brain is the scene of the battle. Eventually, this thought process is meant to lead to some kind of action, but not without a lot of simmering first.

The power here lies not in the plot-driven drama of the late 20th century, or the American realist stage, but in choice. In audience interaction. This is an idea that is both ancient and totally contemporary. The idea that theatre can rewire you brain and, therefore, the world, and that it needs you, the audience, to be active in order to create change. Gone are the days of passive viewing. This revision of Catharsis is a 21st century idea that will play out in multiple ways as theatre takes on virtual reality, extends further into the realm of site specific work, and pushes audiences further into new arenas, both real and imaginary.

What this is all telling us: We can no longer be spectators, we can no longer stand by the sidelines and watch elections pass us by, or theatre play out before us without personal investment, because, if, as the great bard once said, “all the world’s a stage,” then we must make ourselves useful, and always think before we act.

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist
(www.vanessagarcia.org).