The Beginning: May 15 – May 19 (Chart, pontifications, and ponderings)

Embrace the randomosity and go see a show off this chart.  It's fun!
Embrace the randomosity and go see a show off this chart. It’s fun!

This week’s chart it to the right, where it should be.  Take a gander, roll some dice, go see a show.  Yay!

Now, some thoughts I’ve been thinking:

One of the great things about theatre is that it launches discussion.  When I attend a play, I normally have someone with me.  Often times that someone is my wife, but other times I take someone with an unfamiliar perspective on the world.  And through talking to them about what we’ve seen my world vision expands a bit further.  This week I’ll be seeing two shows with two completely different people whom I’m not related to in any way.  That’s what makes this so much fun.

One of the shows that I saw this past week (namely “Confederates in the Attic”) has dropped conveniently into the middle of a discussion that my wife and I have been having for the last few weeks/months/however-long.  We’ve been talking about the comparatively short societal memory possessed by Americans when held up against far older cultures around the world.  It seems to me that as a society we really only remember the last 25 years in detail.  Thereafter we start to kick in the nostalgia filter, and anything beyond the time when our parents were kids is completely in the dark.

I was at a play this past weekend about the major defining event in our country’s history.  That was only 150 years ago.  As far as history goes, that’s still recent.  And the sad thing is, I was one of 13 people in the audience.  And I was the second youngest person in the audience.  I would have been the youngest by far, but clearly someone had brought their college-aged daughter along as part of their family’s Mothers’ Day celebration.

Americans tend to have a relatively short collective memory.  The fact that youth is a driving force in the media shortens it even more today than in generations past.  There are people who are adults today who can’t understand, let alone identify with, the attitudes of the 1970s (when I was born), or the 1940s (when my parents were born).  My grandparents were born about 90-100 years ago.  I’m pretty sure that it is safe to say that there are people currently alive who had grandparents who were born around the time of the Civil War.  Not many, mind you, but it’s still possible.  It’s really not that long ago.

Now, many theatres often talk about how to get younger audiences in.  And they’re talking about it in order to ensure their own existence.  I mean, if your audiences aren’t getting any younger, then you have an impending expiration date, even if it may be some while off.  Perhaps that’s important, I don’t know.  What I do feel is important is that we need to figure out a way to expand younger people’s empathy to include the more distant past.  Not to memorize some facts, as in a text book.  Not to analyze and easily condemn the actions of the past, as history class often asks us to.  Both of those things are important, in so far as we need to understand what happened and what went wrong, but we also need to understand what people were thinking when they did both the good and the deplorable things of the past.  I may know that a slave owner was part of a terrible part of American history, but until I can truly understand what it was that he was thinking while participating in that institution, I cannot truly know what it is that we must prevent from being thought again, nor how to go about it.

I was in a book club a few months back, and we read “The Forever War” which is a Science Fiction novel that is a thinly veiled reaction to the Viet Nam War and the time around it.  A number of the young people (read: 20-somethings) who read it with us immediately discounted the whole book because there were outdated ideas about the origins of homosexuality and women’s rights.  But it was written in the 70s, and was quite forward thinking for its time.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not asking “What’s wrong with kids these days?” or any such thing.  What I’m trying to figure out is how someone can say “Here’s what we thought back then,” and “Here’s what we think now.”  And more importantly, for them to see how we got there without having to have lived through it.  It’s easy for the internet to put together a list of quaintly humorous antique advertisements that can entertain through a snarky comment or two about how sexist the advertising was 40 years ago.  It’s more difficult to understand how the people of that time thought they were more forward thinking than the folks 40 years before them, and how they felt right in what they were doing.

Theatre has an ability to bring an audience in to a situation in which they can empathize with at least a few characters from the past.  For the actors they may even get a deeper understanding of the people they portray.  And I think this is valuable.  The thing I don’t have an answer for is, How do we get people to want to see a piece that will expand their understanding beyond the very limited collective memory that essentially only goes back to the nostalgia of our parents’ childhood days?

One young woman saw a discussion about the Civil War and the people who are still affected by it on Sunday night.  She might have fuller understanding of the people who the play was about.  And in acquiring that understanding she might even come to understand a bit about their forebears.

My daughter is soon to be 15 years old.  She was born in the 20th century (just barely).  So many things that make our country what it is today happened long before she came along, and yet so much of her world will be defined from a set of collective memories that only go back to the 1980s, the last 15-20 years of the “American Century”.

I applaud theatres that try to bring the past forward.  There are thoughts there and understanding there which need to be brought into the present day, not to be renewed, but to be understood more fully.

I don’t have a solution.  Better audience development people than I have been working on how to get young people into the theatres for decades now.   Just some rambling thoughts, I guess.  So much so, that I’ll skip the random bits this week.

Enjoy the chart.  Roll your die, and go see a show!