We Are The Memory Pushers

Journey's End (New York Production) - photo by Paul Kolnick.

What we traffic in is memories.  Theatre, particularly, but all the arts, are representations of abstracted or concrete parts of this world, pushed out from artists to audience with the goal of sticking in the head.  We are memory makers, and it’s important that we try not to forget that when we’re building out experience packages and talking about the value we have to audiences in our materials.  Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, has spoken eloquently about the importance of memory in terms of future experience. I wrote about him in a column for Theatre Bay Area magazine a while back, saying in part:

Most current measurements of audience satisfaction focus on aspects of the experience: were the seats comfortable, was traffic bad, how were the bathroom lines, etc. These are all very valuable markers to understand, but ultimately they and a thousand other things swirl together in the mind to create the memory of the experience. It’s a subtle difference, but psychologically it’s very important: people choose or don’t choose to repeat an activity based on the abstract feelings and impressions that are packaged together in a memory. This is part of why you can have a delicious dinner at a beautiful restaurant, but if the waiter is rude, the entire experience is tainted.

Daniel Kahneman, a researcher into memory and experience, speaks of two selves – the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.” Essentially, in terms of decision-making, the remembering self is the one and only. As he puts it, “The remembering self [is]…the one that makes decisions…the experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. And even when we think about the future, we don’t think of the future as experiences, we think of the future as anticipated memories.”

Memories don’t tag every aspect of an experience with equal significance – some things are deemed more important by the brain than others, and often those things are almost entirely unrelated to the central component of the experience (like, say, a child continuously kicking the back of your seat during a play).

One of the small side-projects of the work we’re doing with WolfBrown on intrinsic impact is a series of five video interviews with arts consumers in the Bay Area. Using the Bay Area Big List, which holds over 1 million households of artsgoers, we identified 100 prospective theatregoers in the Bay Area and sent out a letter asking them to participate in a survey. From the responses (there were 21), we’ve selected the five interviewees, and I just finished conducting the first interview with a man named Barry Levine last week.  It was an amazing experience.  Barry, a retired finance guy who lives with his wife of forty years in a nice neighborhood in Oakland, is an extraordinarily active theatre consumer — he and his wife attend more than 100 arts events per year. We want to know what makes people like Barry tick, especially in context with our larger research into the effect of art on people immediately and over time.

We’re still editing the interview, but I was struck by one quote from Barry that sort of hit home for me. I asked him why he was so passionate about the arts. Barry, who grew up going to see theatre in New York with his father, has strong, special memories of those special times–and it’s this thread of strong memories that really came out in his answer. He says:

Art is a human expression. It’s a way for people to express themselves to others. We need that. We need those kinds of vehicles. For us, it’s theatre. Theatre is magic unto itself. Without theatre, there would be a gaping hole in the human soul. It’s part of our heritage, and it’s something that shouldn’t be lost. That’s why we support the theatre and we’re passionate about it, because we’re always open to surprise, and we just don’t know what the next adventure will be. Sometimes there’s nothing, but you never know, it could be that one that sticks in your mind forever. That’s what theatre is all about, at least as far as we’re concerned.

For Barry and his wife, finding those memories is essentially a quest, the ultimately fulfillment of which is a lingering wonderful taste, visceral and able to be lustily, robustly recounted.  When I asked him about one such memory, he spoke mesmirizingly, and at great length, about seeing Journey’s End in London.  This play, about a group of doomed soldiers in World War I heading off to their deaths, ended (in this production) with what the New York Times called “one of the most chilling curtain calls ever appended to a commercial drama,” in which the actors stood silently in front of a brilliant white wall covered with names of the dead.  As Barry described it (with his eyes visibly welling up at the memory):

Not one person in the audience applauds.  I had tears in my eyes.  You could drop a pin.  You couldn’t applaud because it was so emotionally wrenching, and you couldn’t applaud because it would seem improper that you would do that. The experience of it was just amazing, amazing.  The emotional impact of the stupidity of war, particularly World War I, the stupidity of it…it was just an overwhelming experience, and you’d just walk out of there and it was like, “Wow.” It’s one of those things that when you go to theatre, if it happens, if something like that happens, it’s live, it’s there in front of you like that, it’s just…you have to experience it, it’s tough to talk about, but I’ll never forget it. Ever.

What’s nice about this line of thinking is that, like my grandmother used to say about chicken noodle soup, it’s a way to nourish the body and nourish the soul at the same time–in other words, it helps us out with our bottom line and with our mission fulfillment.  As written about by Diane Ragsdale (and echoed, recently, from a variety of foundations who all seem to be shifting their guidelines to take mission fulfillment more centrally into account), we’re heading quickly towards a moment where being able to clearly and concisely discuss the memory impact of a program is going to move from a rare desireable to a necessity.  As Ragsdale says in her speech/essay, The Excellence Barrier, “success is measured not when the ticket gets sold at the box office, but thirty minutes after the show when everyone is still lingering, buzzing, and talking with one another and the artists.” 

Talking to people like Barry, people who have found their totem in the arts, who measure their days and years by exemplary arts events, who seek out “fixes” from the arts that they carry with them forever, is a useful tool to remind us that we traffic in the making of meaning, the translation of the cacophony of life into understandable, memorable moments, and the passing on of one person’s transformative life experience to another person’s narrative forever.

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