Have you ever met and talked with a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright? Now’s your chance. New York-based playwright Martyna Majok, author of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Cost of Living now playing at the Fountain Theatre, visits this weekend to host two special events at the Fountain to engage audiences and interact with local theatre artists and professionals.
SAT NOV 10 • 8pm
Post-Show Q&A with Audience – Join Martyna and the cast of Cost of Living in a lively discussion immediately following the performance. Buy Tickets
MON NOV 12 • 5pm
An Insider Meeting – Engage in a open dialogue with the Pulitzer Prize winner. Discuss playwriting and the business of working in the theater. LA theatre artists, professionals and general theater-lovers welcome. FREE. Must RSVP here. Followed by the Pay What You Want performance of Cost of Living at 8pm.
Xochitl Romero and Tobias Forrest in “Cost of Living”
Achingly human and surprisingly funny, Cost of Living is about the forces that bring people together and the realities of facing the world with physical disabilities.
In a Nov 2 feature in the Los Angeles Times, theatre journalist Kathleen Foley states, “Defying easy sentiment and conventional expectations, Majok shatters stereotypes with her characters, who are drawn with such truth and specificity that they evoke a frisson of voyeuristic unease. Showered with awards and accolades over the decades, the Fountain has become the West Coast home to world-class playwrights. Scoring the West Coast premiere of Majok’s extraordinary drama is yet another in a long line of coups for this venerable company, while veteran director John Vreeke’s involvement also bodes well for this production.”
To buy tickets to the Q&A performance SAT Nov 10click here.
To RSVP to the Insider Meeting MON Nov 12 at 5pm click here or call (323) 663-1525
As a theatre lover, I have often struggled to qualify the artistic value of a show. What, for example, separates a great, large-scale Broadway musical from a great, smaller, experimental work? When it comes to art, does more money equal more success? I received my answer last Saturday, at the designer run-through rehearsal of the Fountain’s Arrival & Departure: a successful play is one that leaves its audience thinking.
Art has the power to leave a lasting impact and change the way we think. That is exactly what I experienced after watching Arrival & Departure.
The play, at its core, follows the classic, impossible love-story of two star-crossed soul mates who have the universe standing between them. The 90-minute play is filled with heart-wrenchingly beautiful acting on the part of the ensemble and a fantastic script by Stephen Sachs. The artists invite us into their most intimate and vulnerable thoughts, thoughts that were born in a reality that they created out of nothing. It seemed impossible that such genuineness had been bred in only a few weeks of rehearsal – it is beyond inspiring to see what the Fountain team is capable of.
Personally, it was especially moving to experience the power and beauty of Deaf theatre for the first time. The show’s interwoven and unique mélange of ASL and Spoken English creates a dynamic and multi-dimensional artistic medium in which authenticity prevails. Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur conveyed a degree of beauty, truth, and honesty in their signing that cannot be expressed in other forms of communication – it was almost like watching a dance. Especially moving was Bray’s ability to convey her character’s struggles with identity as a hard-of-hearing woman, switching back and forth between ASL and Spoken English.
The play struck me as a type of ‘deconstructed theatre’. The various forms of art involved – from ASL, to Spoken English, to movement, to staging – are separated but harmoniously married, each holding its own and conveying breath-taking emotion, but also supporting one another to create one beautiful piece. I left the rehearsal pondering the very nature of art, and the ways in which society often creates pigeon-holes for artists. Arrival & Departure was unlike anything I have experienced before – it is novel and unique, and conveys emotion in ways that don’t conform to exclusive norms. This, I believe, is the point of theatre, and I cannot wait for others to experience the magic of Arrival & Departure.
This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.
Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.
But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.
Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”
When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”
Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.
It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.
George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.
But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.
Several summers ago, I had one of the strangest morning commute experiences of my life.
I was working as a spoken word mentor to youth at Authoring Action Organization in Winston-Salem, NC. Every morning I’d ride my bike to the closest bus stop which was near the super Wal-Mart, wait around for the 7:40 bus, and travel across town to work. North Carolina summer mornings are particularly beautiful with the sun rising over a completely green landscape, the thickness of the humid air and the dew still sprinkled among the grass. Those bike rides became my daily ritual.
One morning I arrived at the bus stop to be met by a man completely covered head to toe in tattoos. The subject matter of his tattoos were of the white supremacist variety. He was completely bald and on the back of his head sat a large swastika. His arms and chest were also decorated in the Confederate flag. Not only did I feel uncomfortable as a black young woman who I had to be alone with this man, waiting for a late bus, but then it got even stranger when he decided to engage in small talk with me. He went on to talk about his past, how everyone he grew up with was a racist, how he became a skinhead, how he went to jail and how he realized his beliefs were awful after truly meeting and empathizing with people of color. He went on to say that he kept the tattoos as a reminder of his transformation and that people can change.
The bus eventually came and as I struggled to put my bike on the rack, he helped me out and then we parted ways. Why this man felt the need to tell me these things so early on hot humid morning, I have no idea. What I do know is that if this same man tried to have this conversation with me today, I’m not sure I would have engaged or listened.
After Trump was elected, I unapologetically deleted a slew of old Facebook friends. A lot of the ones deleted where old middle & high school classmates that I knew growing up in rural North Carolina. Now my Facebook feed is completely curated to a more liberal, anti-Trump demographic with the occasional far-right article that somehow finds it way onto my news feed. At that time, it was great to delete all of those people from my life. However, I’m sure they still say problematic things and are complicit to hate speech. The only thing that changed after deleting them was that I don’t have to view their rhetoric.
“Gunshot Medley” by Dionna Michelle Daniel
As an artist and activist, I am interested in humanity’s capacity to change. I’m interested in transforming hearts & minds in a way that has lasting impact like the former skinhead I met at the bus stop. That’s why I believe that for real change to begin the divide has to be bridged and discourse must happen. I’m not saying that we should re-add every problematic person we deleted from Facebook after the 2016 elections. Neither should we try to humanize every racist, misogynist, xenophobe or any other person who doesn’t believe in a more diverse future. What I do believe is that if we keep ignoring one another, we will definitely keep the divide polarized. Beginning some sort of dialogue is the best way to bridge the gap. And the best way I know how to contribute to this conversation is through theatre.
At the Fountain, our current season is dedicated to inclusion and awareness of people who are generally marked as “other”. Our current show, The Chosen, focuses on two boys forming an unlikely friendship that all started because of their love of baseball. This summer, we will open an original work by Stephen Sachs called Arrival & Departure, which beautifully recognizes and brings attention to the Deaf community. That will be followed by the west coast premiere of Cost of Living, Martyna Majok’s poignant play dramatizing two characters with physical disabilities.
Our mission is to share diverse stories, break down barriers and bridge the divide. Now it’s your turn to tell me your story. I want to know about an experience when you bridged the gap and shared a moment/bonded with a person who was different from you. Please email your story to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and perhaps we can share it here on the Fountain Blog.
Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
As I am the new intern at the Fountain Theatre, I am supposed to tell you a little bit about myself. Where do I start?
Do I tell you that I can spend hours arguing my opinion on all things nerdy? (SuperWhoLockTer, Comics, Buffy. Try me.) I could mention that I have been compared to Leslie Knope more times than I’ve been to the gym. Should I mention that the fastest way to my heart is through Thai food? How do I even begin to scratch the surface?
I guess it’s best to start with my testimony of theatre. Testimony? That’s a strong word, Lexi. Yes, yes it is. But I believe in the power of theater, and that’s probably the number one thing you should know about me.
When I was a small child I imagined being famous. Not just in the vague sense that most children have, but I honed in on all the small details. I drew up lighting motifs that would spell my name behind me on stage (all purple and grey obviously). I practiced small talk for all interviews I was sure to be on (“oh Oprah, of course I sponsor Pokemon”). I knew that my stage name would be Lexi Lou (because I was too young to realize that it sounded like a stripper name). I had on my rose colored glasses and all the world was a stage, a stage in which revolved around me and how awesome I was.
I grew up in Oregon, the hub of children’s’ theaters and Shakespeare. At a young age, I didn’t necessarily have talent, but I was outgoing and had the ability to speak without a lisp so I got a fair amount of parts right off the bat. That led to acting lessons at some of the local children’s theaters and soon all my time was spent on one stage or another. In fact I probably saw the fake set walls of charming houses more than I did my own house.
As I got older I stopped getting as many lead roles, and started getting more roles in the chorus. At first it was disheartening. My goal was to be famous and I didn’t see how being Whore #1 in Les Mis was going to lead me there. The sentence “There are no small parts, only small actors” became the bane of my existence. But I made a decision it was better to be singing the same alto notes in the chorus than be sitting home alone. And I’m glad I did because that’s when theater itself stopped being about the service it could be to promote me, and started being about the story, the experience, and the family.
In the musical Onceon this Island it says “Our lives become the stories that we weave.” I have found this to be true. The plays I have worked on have forced me to look at my own set of beliefs and build upon them. Plays have taught me how to fight for my convictions, and what happens when society doesn’t. They have taught me how to empathize with people who hold beliefs other than myself. And most of all they taught me the importance of working with a family. A family of fellow artists who are all aspiring to the same vision. Theater isn’t just the exuberant final performance. It’s everything in between. It’s posting audition sheets, late night set construction, and ticket sales. Theater isn’t a star, it’s a group. And I wanted to do anything to be part of that group.
I went to BYU and studied Theater Education. My dreams started evolving less into starring roles and more into how to share and spread theater. I know I want to start my own childrens’ theater. I want to work with children and see them go from being the stars in their own lives to realizing how not only theater, but life, is all about the way we work and help each other.
So through the years I have tried to work in every aspect of theater. I have acted, directed, stage-managed, front of housed, ushered, advertised, managed, did lighting, built sets, for many different theater companies around Oregon and Utah. This past year I was in Australia had the experience to intern at Holden Street Theater helping see to all the daily tasks of running a theater.
Which brings me to now.
I am so excited to now be joining The Fountain Theatre. Los Angeles itself is daunting to me, but the wonderful family here has been nothing but welcoming and kind. It’s importance to not only the artists, but the community as a whole can be profoundly felt. I am so eager to learn all the things it has to offer, and more so to hear from you guys how it has impacted your lives as well.
I am so excited to be joining your community, your family. When I look back on the little girl, stealing microphones and dancing in tutus I think she would choose the love that emanates from this tight-knit theater over a thousand nameless fans any day.
In theatre and baseball, nothing beats watching a well-made play.
Right now, the Dodgers are the hottest team in baseball. Burning up the National League West, nearly 10 games ahead in first place and streaking toward the playoffs with only 30 games left to play. They’ve achieved an astounding turnaround since the season began. Only two months ago in June, they were in last place. Then a miracle happened. Transformation. They now have the best record in baseball since the All Star break. LA fans are elated, fired up. Dodger Stadium is selling out, the stands filling up with folk eager to watch, share and be part of this thrilling live event. Feverish with the same zeal of rushing to see a hit Broadway show. Why?
Sure, everyone loves a winner. But if the Dodgers had leapt into first place from day one of the season our delirium today would be far less electric. Winning would become expected and, as all good playwrights know, giving the audience what’s expected kills drama. The Dodgers story this season is dramatic because they began the year so badly. Their story has what playwrights call dramatic arc.
In crafting a well-made play, the playwright shapes the story so that the protagonist (lead character) undergoes dramatic change: the character begins the journey one way and then, by overcoming a series of trials and obstacles, ends the play fundamentally different in some way. Opposite from how he began. Like, say, beginning as a bad team in last place and then winning the pennant in first place at the end. Just saying.
Part of the joy of watching baseball is the relief of losing yourself in something that has nothing to do with whatever it is you do in real life. Even so, one can’t help see similarities between baseball and professional theatre.
In both theatre and baseball, the crowd gathers together in a common place to engage in a live, shared dramatic experience.
A baseball game and a stage play both have a beginning, middle and end building toward a final resolution in which the dramatic question “who will win?” is ultimately answered.
A stage play and a baseball game are driven by the same engine: conflict. Both have good guys and bad guys, heroes and enemies, humor, action, spectacle, courageous deeds and foolish gaffes, turns of direction and a climax resulting in either a sad or happy ending.
Both theatre and baseball require teamwork and collaboration. We focus on the players in front of us but there is a huge staff of unseen professionals behind the scenes who make the whole experience possible.
Theatre and baseball require years of training and a tremendous amount of practice. Contrary though it may seem, on the field and on the stage, repetitive drilling frees the player so he can let go and perform spontaneously, alive in the moment.
A baseball team, like a cast of actors on stage, are both an ensemble who not only play well together but must also rely on the skill of lead players.
Theatre and baseball are romantic. We idolize our favorite stars on stage and on the field. We swap stories about our favorite memories, spin yarns, follow careers of favorite players, share legends, recall highlights and laugh (or agonize) over famous flops.
Stage plays and baseball games are made of specific moments. A great baseball game and a powerful play can each have the power to contain that one unforgettable moment — that one crystalized instant of perfect artistry, of joyous elation or agonizing heartbreak that sears itself into your soul forever. You remember it, that baseball play or that moment on stage, for the rest of your life.
In baseball and theatre, we lose ourselves in the live dramatic event that is unfolding in front of us in real-time. We watch the struggle of other human beings engaged in dramatic conflict and care deeply about their outcome. Who will perish? Who survive?
Both theatre and baseball are a living, breathing experience that is only meaningful with audience interaction. Other human beings.
After watching a thrilling baseball game or seeing an unforgettable stage play, we exit the ballpark or theater and walk to our car or the subway with the same giddy elation. We’re wrung out, exhausted. And stirred up, juices flowing, exhilarated. We can’t stop yakking about the miracle we’ve just seen. Or we are heartbroken and grow quiet and sullen and can’t speak. Then there are those times, after seeing a great baseball game or an extraordinary piece of theatre, when we can not move. At all. The game or stage play is over. We sit in our seat. Paralyzed. Staring at the empty field or stage. Marveling at what we’ve just lived through.
Lived through. We have just shared in a meaningful live experience with other human beings. We are alive.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
Let me get transparent with you. I cannot stand the word “diversity.” It makes me uncomfortable because I know what it has become code for.
For the first thirty minutes or so of a plenary [at a TCG Conference in Chicago three years ago], there were several accomplished men and women of color sharing some of their experiences with diversity, or the lack thereof, in the theater community. The conversation from the panel quickly became a call to action to the executive and artistic directors in the room to make the American theater landscape match the general population in cultural and gender representations. Then it happened. A middle-aged white man from a theater company in Minnesota stood to speak. He said that he would love to put more “…blacks on stage” but he knows that that would mean that he would lose his audience base because they wouldn’t be able to “…identify with those types of stories.” Hmmm…in that moment it became painfully clear to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to add cultural and gender specificity to America’s theatrical landscape. People are bandying about the word “diversity” without having a real understanding of what the word means. Without a true understanding of the word, we certainly cannot move to a place of honest dialogue, and without honest dialogue we will not achieve real change.
So let’s start with defining the word “diversity.” Dictionary.com offers the following:
1. The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness:diversity of opinion.
2. Variety; multiformity.
3. A point of difference.
I find a few things notable in this definition. The first is that diversity is defined as a noun and not a verb. This means that it is a state of being and not something you do. Hence one cannot perform diversity. This definition suggests that to simply do things that we think seem diverse (i.e., color blind casting) isn’t enough. The definition suggests that to achieve diversity, you have to accept difference as the rule and not the exception. Diversity has become code for throwing cultural and gender difference at a white wall and hoping that the differences stick, but being OK when some or all of them simply slide to the floor.
Per the aforementioned definition, diversity at its core means that there are a variety of things that make up a whole that have different shapes, forms, and kinds. So I think it is safe to say that a state of being diverse can only be achieved if there is variety. We have attempted to achieve diversity by keeping most things in American theater culturally homogenous and adding a dash of difference. But the definition of the word diversity lets us know that this type of thinking is topsy-turvy.
Then there is this third part of the definition, “a point of difference.” A “point” is defined in its second definition as, “a projecting part of anything.” From this one can infer that diversity is the center, the focal point, from which difference and variety project. We have attempted to introduce diversity into the American theater landscape without diversifying the centers of artistic decision-making (producers, artistic directors, board of directors, etc.) in our theatrical institutions. How can we project difference into the entire theatrical experience when the points are culturally homogenous?
I have been at the center of many of these conversations about diversity. But I believe that none of these conversations will bear the fruit of change until we all embrace the state of being diverse and stop acting out diversity.
Carla Stillwell is a theatre director, playwright and performer. She is the Managing Producer for MPAACT as well as a Playwright-In-Residence and Resident Director with the company. Additionally, Ms. Stillwell is a teaching artist for MPAACT and The Steppenwolf Theatre.
Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.
But, he continued, “If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”
Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.
His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders’ words are a reminder to send out more invitations.
Saunders’ thought experiment isn’t good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it’s great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.
Saunders’ idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.
“Duchamp’s nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn’t play ‘4’33’ sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John’s ‘Numbers’ fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn’t like modernism. Let it be.”
The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era.
The mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.
But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders’ so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.
As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching, and finally to theatre — not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theatre, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind? I guess this conundrum has stuck with me, because as recently as this past winter I made a list of seven reasons why theatre matters and I’d like to share them with you briefly tonight.
First, theatre does no harm. Theatre is one of those human activities that doesn’t really hurt anyone or anything (except for its carbon footprint — but let’s ignore that for now). While we’re engaged in making or attending theatre, or any of the arts for that matter, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, wife-beating, drinking, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.
Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need — one might call it an instinct — to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor. We see this instinct expressed in children when they act out real or imagined characters and events. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies, long before the foundations of Western theatre in Ancient Greece. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can’t help it. It’s part of what makes us human.
Third, theatre brings people together. For a performance to happen, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people need to gather in one place for a couple of hours, and share together in witnessing and contemplating an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving, thought-provoking, or hopefully at least diverting. And in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.
Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don’t get resolved, and what happens when they do. We develop our faculty for imagining the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal lives and our political lives. It’s not surprising that, in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid; in Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy. If our own representatives and senators in Washington went to the theatre more often, I suspect we’d all be better off.
Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. Watching the characters talk back and forth in the theatre is tricky; it requires sharp attention, quick mental shifts, and nimble language skills. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology. In historical plays we get lessons in leadership and government. In contemporary plays, we learn about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries. Studies have shown that students who participate in theatre do better in school. Making plays together also draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way.
Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. We’ve seen this quite clearly in our own city. You can look at the role that the Studio Theatre played along the 14th Street corridor, or Shakespeare Theatre along Seventh Street, or Woolly in both these neighborhoods, or Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the Atlas along H Street, or the new Arena Stage along the waterfront. As each of these theatres opened, new audiences started flooding in, new restaurants opened, jobs were created, the city improved the sidewalks, and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity. And this pattern has been repeated in cities across the United States and around the world.
Finally, the seventh way that theatre matters — and this one applies to some kinds of theatre more than others — is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. The most vivid example of this I’ve ever experienced was during a post-show discussion at Woolly Mammoth when a woman said that one of our plays made her and her husband decide that they had a serious problem in their marriage and needed to go for counseling; and she was pleased to report that they were still together and much happier as a result. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t hear things like this every day. But speaking more generally isn’t this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead? And isn’t it a very short step from there to saying, gee, maybe there’s something I should change about my own life? And it may have nothing to do with the message that the playwright wanted to deliver! Maybe the play is about a fierce battle over a family dinner that breaks the family apart over irreconcilable political divisions — but maybe you watch the play and say, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a family dinner once in a while, and so you decide to plan one for next month.
So, those are my seven ways that theatre matters: it does no harm, expresses a basic human instinct, brings people together, models democratic discourse, contributes to education and literary, sparks economic revitalization, and influences how we think and feel about our own lives.