by Stephen Sachs
It came from the young producer of a newly-formed immersive theatre company. His troupe eschews the conventional production of plays. Instead, it presents “multisensory experiences.” The question was targeted at me. The panel discussion at LATC brought together artistic directors from six LA companies, some new and some long-established, to talk over the goals and perils of creating theatre in Los Angeles. As Founder/Artistic Director of the Fountain, I was invited to speak for a “legacy theatre.” I was one of the old guys.
The question thrown to me by the young theater-maker is one I’ve been asked many times over thirty years. It comes when your theatre creates work that confronts social and political issues. The question will surface sometimes in reviews of new plays or be floated in post-show discussions with patrons. Depending on tone and intent, I’ve heard it posed both as a question and as a statement of accusation.
“Aren’t you just preaching to the choir?”
The trope of “preaching to the choir” is defined as presenting work that offers a message so obvious, so apparent and undebatable to those receiving it (because they think or feel the same way) it is therefore rendered meaningless. A waste of time. For years, I agreed. Preaching to the choir was unproductive. Over time, I have changed my mind.
The choir needs preaching, too.
The choir are the folks at every service. They’ve heard it all. They’ve listened to the same scripture spoken from the same pulpit, time and time again. They know the words to every song and have sung them, over and over. By now the choir should embody, as human beings, what all the words mean. But they can’t. Nobody can. The truth is, once the choir believes that it “already knows,” the church is in trouble.
At the Fountain, the choir are our longtime loyal patrons who follow the artistic mission of our theatre. Together, we are committed to diversity and inclusion. At the Fountain, we dramatize stories on racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, homelessness. If I were to survey each of our devoted patrons I would wager that all would agree that these social issues are wrong. Should the Fountain, therefore, not tell these stories?
Why do we go to a church or a temple? Why should we gather with like-minded people who share our same belief system, who think like we do, who know all the same stories and follow all the same rules. Why do we go? To be humbled. Reminded. Illuminated. We are complicated, imperfect beings. There is infinity to discover in ourselves and each other. We think we know. We do not.
A few weeks ago I was reading a book on racism in America. The book was forcing me to confront my own position of privilege as a White man in this country. I was highlighting sentences and paragraphs throughout. I also found myself skimming what I considered to be obvious sections outlining racism in this country, thinking, “I know, I know, I know” as I flipped the pages. I then stopped myself. What was I doing? Do I really know? Can I really know? Isn’t muttering “I know, I know, I know” while flipping pages on racism just another example of a well-meaning White liberal male self-medicating?
Once we say “I know” to any social issue, and do nothing, we become part of the problem. Preaching to those who need healing is easy. Changing the self-righteous is hard.
Preaching to the choir is pointless only if parishioners do nothing after the service. Just if educated well-meaning patrons at the Fountain see a play on injustice, nod their heads, agree that it’s terrible, feel good about themselves and then go home to their daily lives, unchanged. Preaching to the choir is essential when it pushes the choir to dig deeper inside itself and ask the hard questions: what is my role in this? How do I perpetuate what is wrong? How can I make it right?
At the Fountain, I am deeply aware that I am not only part of the choir, I am the Choir Leader. I am the straight, White male gatekeeper of a theatre dedicated to diversity. Even with my best intentions, no matter how hard I try, I do not “know.” I can not “know.” Whenever I pretend that I do, I have lost my way.
Coming to the theatre reminds me what the many ills of this nation make painfully clear. No truth is self-evident.