Social Acupuncture (Darren O’Donnell)

This book contains a lengthy essay on O’Donnell’s vision of a politically and socially engaged theatrical experience, which for O’Donnell is best achieved through an audience-involved, non-narrative theatre. He makes an impassioned call for artists to blur the line between art production and social work and to engage directly with their audiences through relevant, meaningful, non-academic works.

I disagree with O’Donnell’s basic premise, which is that it is not possible to have meaningful indirect, positive effects on the social world through the creation of esoteric art. However, his criticisms are particularly relevant and useful insofar as the theatre is concerned, and he’s right to deride the theatre’s obsession with the “classics” and the industry’s aversion to risk (an observation that also holds true for other artistic disciplines).

A play is also included in the book, something of an interactive yet scripted monologue, and O’Donnell’s recent (as of 2006) projects are discussed in an overview of how he has managed to develop and apply his ideas about “social acupuncture.” While I applaud O’Donnell for the most part, I’m troubled by his apparent unconcern with technical ability and aesthetic achievement.

The “general public” should not have to settle for unskilled, unspectacular art. The notion that the way to make one’s art more relevant and “palatable” is to downgrade its aesthetic and technical achievement is a common and condescending notion that permeates the theatrical and art worlds, especially insidious in the fields of performance and video art. O’Donnell’s work is more interesting and his play more well-written than this criticism might imply — the book, its argument, and the play are all excellent in many respects and I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in socially engaged art. I don’t buy many of these arguments but I think they are important arguments to consider and contend.

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