On artistic process and accountability: Reflections on the cancellation of Beast Thing

Liliana Bierer

Pieces of this appeared quoted in last week’s news article (“Theatre department cancels ‘Beast Thing,’” Nov. 7), but here are my fuller explanations.

There is no single narrative of how or why Beast Thing was cancelled, no monolithic experience or conflict with clear sides. It has been messy and muddy the whole time, as theater-making needs to be.  Theater is a space of true accountability; it is one of the only things I have never been able to bullshit. It holds me accountable to my own body and the knowledge it holds, and to the people in the room who witness it. For me, theater is fundamentally about creating an erotic embodied experience in a room with people. And I say “erotic” in the Audre Lorde sense: a sense of feeling and intuition lodged deep in the belly. Theater can tap into realms of experience that challenge the structures of knowledge that have been concomitant with the rollout of centuries of colonial violence. It is a space that allows for something more.

I deeply respect all the work the designers, the director, the playwright, the crew and the cast have put into Beast Thing. I am grateful and so saddened that it will not materialize. But simultaneously I could not trust that the experience we were working to create would be generative. I could not trust that this audience – a room of my peers, my loved ones, my acquaintances, my community members – was being considered with care for the multiplicity of potential traumas they hold. I want to clarify that what I mean here is not that as a theater-maker one must know exactly the effect that a show will have. Nor do I believe that discomfort is dangerous. That would be naïve and anathema to the act of setting artistic work free. But those who witness a work must be able to engage with its content, rather than be so engulfed by re-traumatization that the work as a whole becomes unintelligible. It is we, the actors, who would have been held accountable for the harm of the show. And there is an inherent manipulative power dynamic in that reality. We had little say in the decisions, yet we were charged with carrying them out in our bodies. 

In my experience, and I speak for no one else, the cancellation of Beast Thing was as much about the place of violence onstage in a small community like Williams as is it is about the process. I am both an actor and an organizer. In my organizing, a central tenet of community contracts is the notion of trusting intent and owning impact. In order to do the work, you need to trust that everyone is there with good intentions, and if people make mistakes, you hold them accountable for the harm they have done and for the impact of those intentions. With regard to certain pieces of violent imagery in the show, it became clear that there was no intention explicit and thoughtful enough to merit this imagery. And so for me, the question of owning impact could not even take place because the intention was not clear.

But I think the reason it unraveled so quickly is that throughout the process, we as actors were continually disrespected, silenced and manipulated in the service of an artistic vision and conversations about which we were often not privy to. I firmly believe that theater is political.  And in doing the kind of work that Aleshea Harris is making – one that opens up new possibilities for writers and artists of color in a stifling white world – I think that process has to mirror its product. It is not just about what you make and who makes it, but how it is made. If we are to build new work, we damn well better treat people well along the way. What are we working towards if we cannot act out our espoused values? There was a culture of silencing that developed in the room, in which I did not feel valued as a whole person. Work about violence must be done, but it must be done as a labor of love, and that is not what happened with this piece. 

While I am left feeling guilty, unsatisfied, angry, sad and empty all at once, I am at least heartened by the bold act of collective power building that the students carried out. It holds promise for large structural changes at the College, which we desperately need. My kind of freedom does not wield and brandish content in the name of free speech or expression. No, it is rooted in deep connection and community accountability. And toward that goal, work remains.

Liliana Bierer ’19 is from Cambridge, Mass. She is a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major.