Published on: January 12, 2018
A recent piece in the New York Times
by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar resonated with me because of its revelation that “a group of neuroscientists have discovered that watching live theater can synchronize the heartbeats of an audience. One of the researchers put it this way: “Experiencing the live theater performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience.”
The argument is that we as a culture have fallen captive to what Akhtar calls the “merchandising of our attention.”
Akhtar writes, “The attention-finance complex has given us devices to which we are tethered by more than compulsion. Our pleasure principle — long prey to the manipulations of capitalism — has been turned against us, irretrievably yoked to ends that are not ours, ends we cannot fully comprehend.
“Transformed into economic subjects, our humanity is being redefined; we are valuable only insofar as our economic behavior can be predicted and monetized. Indeed, the technology has enabled the very movements of our mind to become a steady stream of revenue to someone, somewhere.”
I was thinking about this last weekend when my family and I went to Broadway to see “Come From Away,” the Tony Award-winning musical that focuses on the small Canadian town of Gander, New Foundland, where 38 planes landed on September 11, 2001, after US airspace was closed for the first time in history after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC.
It is hard to imagine that what sounds like a musical about 9-11 could in any way work. But it does, mostly because it really is about 9-12, and 9-13, and the days that followed. More than 7,000 stranded passengers descended upon Gander in those days - people of all shapes and sizes and genders and sexual orientation and political beliefs and ethnicities - and the few thousand people who lived there welcomed them with food and shelter and hot showers and, most of all, compassion. In the wake of terrorist attacks that showed the worst of which people are capable, the residents of Gander demonstrated the best of what people are capable.
“Come From Away” is a wonderful piece of theater with just 13 incredibly talented people portraying hundreds of characters, slipping in and out of accents and personality traits with amazing ease and precision, making each one distinct and memorable. The music is wonderful - buoyant and toe-tapping when it should be, soulful and touching when it needs to be, and often featuring a Celtic beat that reaches right into the heart.
I watched “Come From Away,” and it filled me with hope about the human community. At a time when tribalism seems to infect every debate, when people denounce each other for their differences rather than celebrate them, and when too many people hold up their hand as if to say “go away” rather than opening their arms for an embrace even of what they do not understand, “Come From Away” seemed like the perfect antidote … and its good feelings were infectious, more than enough to “overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience.”
Not every live performance experience is necessarily as uplifting. A few days before we saw “Come From Away,” Mrs. Content Guy and I saw comedian Kevin Hart in concert - and it was about as profane as a performance as I can remember seeing live. And yet, Hart’s joy in creating laughter - and the way in which he weaves a wide variety of narratives that come together, culminating in knockout punch lines - is its own kind of community-building exercise. We laugh because we recognize so much of the behavior that he describes, and it helps that everybody else is laughing, too.
You can’t replicate “Come From Away” or Kevin Hart in concert while sitting alone or with just a few other people in a room. There’s nothing wrong with the experience of watching something on a screen, but it is in creating community - via performer and audience - that we actually sustain our souls.
I’ve always felt this way. Long before my decision to become a writer, I went to acting school. For a time, I had an agent. Never got a professional job, but I worked at it before realizing that if I wanted to tell stories, it would be better to do so at the keyboard. But still, I love the notion of performance, which is one of the reasons I so love the speeches I give and the teaching I do each year. I get to tell stories. I get to illuminate and entertain. I get to engage in the act of producing a common physiological experience. I get to perform.
In his New York Times
piece, Akhtar writes, “A living actor before a living audience. The situation of all theater, a situation that can awaken in us a recollection of something more primordial, religious ritual — the site of our earliest collective negotiations with our tremendous vulnerability to existence. The act of gathering to witness the myths of our alleged origins enacted — this is the root of the theater’s timeless magic.”
And, he concludes, “The theater is an art form scaled to the human, and stubbornly so, relying on the absolute necessity of physical audience, a large part of why theater is so difficult to monetize. It only happens when and where it happens. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. It doesn’t exist to be paused or pulled out at the consumer’s whim. It can’t be copied and sold. In a world increasingly lost to virtuality and unreality — the theater points to an antidote.”
It is, in its own way, magic. Nothing like it.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.