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How Movements Can Use Drama to Seize the Public Imagination

How Movements Can Use Drama to Seize the Public Imagination


Drama is useful in getting attention for our issues. The Sunrise Movement is only one of the recent movements that grew by seizing the public imagination through drama. How do activists come up with direct action tactics that reach, in author Jonathan Smucker’s useful phrase, “beyond the choir”?

Here we’re entering the realm of creativity. Television shows relying on drama create writers’ rooms where a group of creative people swap ideas and generate options. Activists who expect wonderful ideas to emerge during a large meeting in a dreary church basement after a long workday may not be setting themselves up for success. Kibitzing with creative friends in a bar after the meeting might work better.

Creativity can also be an individual thing. A great idea may come in the shower, while walking along the river, in a worshipping community, while staring out of the window after reading about other actions. One friend of mine likes to scan in a relaxed way Gene Sharp’s list of almost two hundred nonviolent methods.

Drama feeds on uncertain outcomes

While it’s true that a clash with others, including authorities, is an invitation to drama, a conflict can easily be a dud through repetition. Consider the period after the Battle of Seattle in 1999, when a mass of global justice advocates brought the meeting of the World Trade Organization to a premature close. The word went out: Gather at a spot where powerholders meet, generate chaos and get publicity for your cause. The clashes happened at political conventions and elsewhere. While they were exciting for many participants and sometimes got local coverage, the outcomes often turned out to be predictable. The result: little attention for the issue.

When the Sunrise Movement’s young people occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November no one could know what would happen, Sunrise spokesperson Stephen O’Hanlon told me. Sunrise demanded she support the Green New Deal. The big question, however, was: Would she meet that demand, or at least support the formation of a select committee? (Ultimately, she did allow a select committee on the climate crisis.)

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Legislative Actions

Time critical actions:

Municipal Sustainability Checklist

We have created a municipal “sustainability checklist” that can help towns compare what they are doing with other towns, as well as get ideas and encourage collaboration. For residents, the checklist helps understand what towns are doing and not doing, as well as set priorities for local advocacy. For organizers, the checklist is an excellent tool to organize local groups around, and to build networks of people who care about sustainability.

Click here for details.