” … an informative and inspiring how-to handbook of direct, confrontational social activism … “Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine
It was early 2003. In the face of unprecedented global public opposition, the Bush Administration was moving relentlessly toward an illegal and unjustified war with Iraq. Desperate to stop the war, people all over the world were seeking creative ways to voice their opposition.
Inspired by the recently organized New York group Theaters Against War, Sharron Bower and I, both of us actors, organized an international day of theatrical action centered around a famous ancient Greek anti-war comedy, Lysistrata. Written by the playwright Aristophanes, Lysistrata tells the fictitious story of the women of Greece ending the Peloponnesian War by refusing sex until the men quit fighting. Productions traditionally involve nudity on the part of the women and excessively large phalli on the priapically crippled men — conditions which make viewing the play a highly memorable experience.
Over the course of a few days, Bower and I set up a website that served as an instruction manual for organizing a reading of the play. It contained downloadable logos, posters, fliers, a sample press release, a top-ten list of reasons for opposing the war, instructions for organizing a reading and a page listing readings by geographic area with contact information. We then sent an email to everyone we knew offering this reading as a fun, powerful means of opposing the impending war. We suggested people adapt the play to the needs of their own community, and feel free to do readings anywhere that suited them.
Everyone we knew forwarded the email to everyone they knew, and we started getting phone calls and emails from all over the world, including one from a college student in Texas which read:
FINALLY! SOMETHING WE CAN DO! I’M SKIPPING CLASS TO GO ORGANIZE A READING IN THE QUAD. THANK YOU FOR THINKING OF THIS! PEACE, PEACE, PEACE, PEACE, PEACE PEACE PEACE PEACE PEACE PEACE PEACE!!!!
Numerous playwrights offered their own translations of the play, which were posted on the website for free, and an educational team put together a penis-free version of the show for kids called No Hugs, No Kisses and a fifty-page study guide — also posted on the site.
By March 3, the day of the event, we had 1,029 readings in fifty-nine countries on six continents (no Antarctica) and in all fifty states. The readings received widespread news coverage in the U.S. and around the world. There were two star-studded readings in New York and LA, and smaller readings in living rooms, churches, parks, rain forest campsites, community theaters, trailer park diners, a Kurdish refugee camp, as well as at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens where the play is set. There were clandestine readings in China and Jerusalem, as well as in Northern Iraq — undertaken by the international press corps who had to keep it secret so they wouldn’t get fired.
Lysistrata Project readings reached an estimated 200,000 people and raised over $100,000 for peace-oriented charities.
Lysistrata Project was one of the first virally organized simultaneous events to harness the power of the Internet to inspire and equip dispersed actions. It worked partly because we made available an easy-to-use guide to make participation easy. It worked partly because the play is a comedy, so it was fun to do and fun to watch. It worked partly because sex sells. As playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who directed the main New York reading at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, pointed out, “Nobody can resist an ancient Greek dick joke.” It worked partly because the play is in the public domain and could be freely adapted for the needs of each individual reading. It was also of a particular moment in time. There had been a ramping-up of protests happening already — including millions turning out all over the world on February 15, 2003 — and there was a sense of hope and optimism that the power of the people might actually prevent the war.
Lysistrata Project participants took great comfort and inspiration in knowing that they were part of a global day of action, and that there were people all over the world participating.
The fact that the event was a mass distributed action also multiplied the power of what each group was doing, so there was less pressure on local organizers to have the biggest possible event — private living room readings were just as valuable as star-studded extravaganzas. The cumulative power of the collective action also made adding readings easier, because gaps became more obvious, and people living in those gaps were driven to organize a reading.
Local, national, and international media outlets were also far more inclined to cover the event because it was happening on such a large scale.
By choosing a comedy about a sex strike as a form of protest, Lysistrata Project organizers made participation fun for their performers and audience members and made the event irresistible to the media.