Theatre as an Antidote to Isolation

"Honeycomb" by nene9 from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
“Honeycomb” by nene9 from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

I’m transcribing some interviews we have conducted with patrons (some of which I’ve written about previously) about the impact of artistic experiences on them, and I was so affected by one that I’m going to just post an excerpt of it here and let it speak for itself.  Well, speak for itself except to say that the interviewee is a man by the name of Sean McKenna who lives in Oakland, and who attends about 35 shows a year with his family.  I think that Sean’s relatively effortless articulation of what theatre does for him is really inspiring, and I think it’s a good reminder of the burden we share as theatremakers, especially today.

I’m particularly affected, here, by the way he describes the past experience and the value he places on the accumulated experiences of art in his life.  It speaks strongly of what Alan Brown has taken to calling the “impact echo,” the dividends of an artistic experience over time, and reiterates some of the points I was trying to make in my Uberti Effect post a couple weeks ago.  Which is perhaps all the more exciting, given that Sean wasn’t prompted, particularly, to describe his feelings in the particular vocabulary of intrinsic impact.  So, umm, huzzah!?

Anyway, let’s not be too wonky.  The words are important here, regardless of the psychology.  So, without further ado, Sean:

I’m a big baseball fan; I love baseball. And theatre’s like that. You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen because it’s live. I mean sure, it’s going to follow the script and the characters but it also varies. It varies night to night, how different things can be, and there are little things that shift that add up to make a huge difference between, say Friday night and Saturday night.

The situation changes minute by minute. The pitch count. How many balls. How many strikes. As that progresses, it changes the situation. There are men on base. Where are the outfielders playing in relationship to the capability of the hitter? All of these things come together, these different pieces, all at once. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And unlike other sports, for me, baseball engages me intellectually as well as emotionally. I have a stake in the outcome of the game.

And what it really is about, for me, is the way that moment-to-moment thing happens. Something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens. The moments build on each other, and then suddenly there’s a moment that’s very exciting out of something that wasn’t exciting, and you’re surprised.

With theatre, one thing happens. Another thing happens. It builds, it builds, it builds. You’re not quite sure where it’s going to go, and then suddenly something explosive happens.

There was this production that William Ball did in New York in the 60’s. He had this little theatre on Second or so, on the third floor of a hotel building, I think. In the round, and he did a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author.

And towards the end of the play, there’s this denouement, around the child drowning in the fountain. I was alone for this production, and this moment towards the end of the play, this drowning came out in a kind of a pantomime show. And I knew the play; it’s not like I was surprised by the plot, what was happening. But I was blown away by the way it was presented and the overwhelming emotional experience of this coming together at the end of the play.

I’ll just never forget that.

Every time you get that feeling, I assume, without any empirical evidence to back it up, that everyone else in the audience is feeling that same thing at the same moment. And usually that’s validated by the response at the end of the show, where people really get excited.

When somebody hits a home run at a baseball park—you don’t say, “Oh, I guess I should get up, everybody else is getting up.” Everybody just gets up, because it’s so exciting. You’re so involved. You’ve been waiting for something to happen and then bam it happens and you connect with it.

That’s the way it felt to me at Six Characters. It was a small audience, but the enthusiasm and the response to it was like there was a large crowd. We were all there together, on our feet.

You have to be taken out of the isolation of your point of view about the world. You have to experience other worlds, other people’s experiences of life. And there are lots of ways for people to connect with one another, but when you get 100, 500, 700 people together and have them experiencing something together, that’s a connection. Theater does that better than any art form. And that’s a real important thing for people.

This country right now is going through this kind of isolationist, weird thing where we’re disconnecting from our ability to relate positively and empathize. Empathize, that might be the word, with other people. I don’t understand how that happens or why that’s happening, but I do believe that art can ameliorate that tendency to a great extent, and put people in touch with things that might not have occurred to them, and can possibly change their lives. We were talking earlier about experiences that change your life. I would think that that might be a possibility, with theatre. And that’s an amazing thing.

We all need to be taken out of ourselves sometimes. Because, you know, you live in yourself, really, except when you’re engaged in something that takes you out of yourself. Like with baseball: time just kind of goes by when you’re at the park, and you’re not thinking about yourself.

For me, theater really takes me out of myself the whole time the show’s going on. You inhabit the world of these people, and you get involved with what they want, and away from what you want. And then some moment comes in the show, towards the end, when suddenly you realize that the reason you’ve been so involved in this production is because what they want is really what you want. And this moment happens where it all comes together.

There’s this connection between you and them and some kind of…higher order of things, you know? And it all kind of comes together at that moment and just kind of explodes all around you, surrounds you, and you’re not alone.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone