by Stephen Sachs
Our house divided? It can seem. There are days and nights like these when only what is wrong is what one sees.
Where once we felt safe, we are now afraid. Shootings. Bombings. Racial tension. Violence. Fear. Aggression. Terror. Polarization. The chasm in our country separating the haves from have-nots, the soaring from the struggling, grows wider. Officers we pay to protect us are shooting us. Public servants we elect to represent us serve themselves. A candidate spews hateful division as his poll numbers grow.
There’s a kind of insanity seeping in. A dis-ease. An unravelling. An anxious self-protection splits us further and further apart.
Disconnection can seem everywhere.
Here in Los Angeles on my own artistic landscape. As Actors Equity Association tries to force its new plan that imposes conflicting rules and opposing financial burdens on a vast mixture of intimate theaters in LA — pitting membership companies against sub 5o-seat houses against staff-driven theaters — I fear fragmentation and division on the horizon for our intimate theatre community as we are disjoined from one 99-Seat Plan for all to segregation, separate and not equal.
Can we come together? Stay together? Or will we fragment and divide?
Then I consider an audience. Any audience.
In our world of theatre, the wide variety of individuals who gather to see a play on any given night in any theatre in this country — no matter the number of people or their diversity of race, ethnicity, age, gender, social standing, neighborhood — are referred to as one entity. They are the audience. Singular. Not plural. Composed of unique and separate individuals who, together, become one thing.
Like the motto of our nation: Out of many, one.
I see it happen all the time in my theatre on Fountain Avenue. The pre-show bustle of patrons before a performance. Folks dash into the lobby, check their smartphones, launch last-minute texts, chatter brightly with each other, get a drink, go to the bathroom. They come from all over the city. From varied neighborhoods, all manner of jobs, vastly different lives. Yet, when curtain time is called, they somehow find their seats together. A Highland Park bus driver sits next to a Century City attorney sits next to a Sherman Oaks nurse sits next to a Koreatown hairdresser.
The lights then go down. The smartphones are silenced, programs are stashed, eyes and ears are trained forward. A hush blankets the crowd. A light warms the stage. An actor makes the first entrance. The play begins.
And it happens.
The outside world evaporates. And this seated mass of human individuals slowly, steadily transforms as they are pulled deeper into the story unfolding before them on stage. One hundred people will see the same performance and see one hundred different plays at the same time, but there is also a shared thing, a unity that happens. An audience becomes a living thing, a dynamic organism that laughs and breathes and interconnects with itself energetically for its brief time together between lights up and lights down. Out of many, one.
And what do we call the area where the audience sits? We don’t call it the sitting area, or the zone or the sector. We call it the house. In the theatre, the audience sits in our house.
And for these shared hours, these shimmering minutes, this gathering of separate people agree to enter into the sacred pact to become an audience, together. The house begins divided. It ends as one.
The purpose of meaningful theatre is to tell stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being. And by its very nature, because it is performed by human beings — live, in the moment, in front of other beings — it puts a human face on issues that confound us all. It humanizes our conflicted ideas about ourselves, each other and our world. Race, religion, poverty, politics, sex and social challenges are embodied on a stage in personal stories of loss and triumph about specific human beings. In a play, ideas, themes and concepts are distilled into the needs and journeys of people.
When an audience is pulled into the world of a meaningful play and emotionally invests in the struggles of the characters on stage, the artificial divide between audience and actor mysteriously falls away and the characters become real. We feel we know them, we care about their outcome. And the alchemy of empathy begins. “They” become “us”. We identify. That character is me.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another human being. The capacity to feel what another being is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.
A good play can do that.
Healing and transformation begins with the understanding that there is no other, the other is me. A meaningful night in the theatre can create the connection of empathy in ourselves that allows us to wake the next morning with a new awareness of each other, as sisters and brothers. Each of us unique and separate. And, at the same time, not so different.
As an audience, as a city, as a nation.
We are, out of many, one.
Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.