Encouraging and Unexpected

Nothing makes your weekend like discovering that you’ve popped up in a YouTube video from a cause you’re passionate about. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this, a retrospective video from the Applied Theatre and Marginalized Communities conference that I attended last March:

I’m in there like four times, if you can spot me (hint: I’m the one doing the Brooklyn accent while yelling out the “cab” window). That, however, isn’t the point of my posting it here. Finding this over the weekend was a bit providential, because I really needed it. Like any good conference, I returned from this one in March completely buzzing with great ideas and positivity. And, honestly, few things make me quite as happy and fulfilled as spending time with other theatre practitioners. Attending that conference lifted me from the doldrums that the daily grind can sometimes plummet me into, and refreshed my perspective on interdisciplinarity…that is, that all of these seemingly disconnected interests and disciplines really do inform each other to the greater good.

It’s amazing, really, how we cling to those little moments, be it a weekend or just an hour of productive writing activity, to reclaim a feeling that we’re not really wasting our time. During an amazingly hectic weekend, I walked away feeling so accomplished because of an hour and a half of productive writing time. Not that much for one day of the weekend, but it made me feel confident, made me at least think that I wasn’t just tricking myself into believing that I was doing something worthwhile. On Monday I experienced a similar “high on life” moment as I implemented tools I learned at the Applied Theatre Conference to great success in two separate sessions with adolescents.

Over the weekend, even if for a brief period of time, I left the robotic motions of just writing pages in a novel and re-discovered what I’m trying to say with the project. Today, I left the robotic motions of a day job and re-discovered how theatre can impact those around me for the greater good. I stopped just being, and began living again in those moments.

Perhaps, more than just fleeting moments of feeling good about ourselves (because buying something new can do that for the briefest of seconds), these moments of feeling as though we’re serving a greater purpose motivate us because we realize just how narcissistic we are to look no further than ourselves. The reason that these glimpses into my true passions invigorated me so much is because it shakes me out of the trap of just getting from today into tomorrow in one piece, which can so often be the short term goal of our lives.

Not that getting from today into tomorrow isn’t important, and not that it isn’t legitimately the only thing that we can manage sometimes. But it is so, so important that we intentionally step back on occasion and try to see the “big picture.”

Its that “big picture” that reveals itself to us in those moments, just like a character does to the writer when you hear him or her speak in their own voice inside your words for the first time, or when an actor begins to be someone else on the stage. That “aha!” moment when we remember, “that’s why I’m doing this!”

I’m a big believer in stopping whatever it is that I’m doing when I can no longer remember why I’m doing it. That’s why moments like this weekend, set in motion by something as small as discovering myself in a YouTube video, are important beyond measure.

I hope you find those moments, as well.

Social Media Voyeurism

I’ve a confession to make.

While “Inbox Zero” has been more than a bit elusive for me lately, I did manage to clear out my RSS feeds this morning. That means that, in addition to news, I read all manner of new blog posts, as well as old blog posts that I hadn’t quite gotten around to yet. Blogging, obviously, is very important to me. Yet, several posts into my reading this morning, I realized that I had only commented on two. And only one of those was substantive.

Moreover, what was missing from my feeds was further discussion on a comment chain in which I had engaged in some discussion a few days ago. I suppose I should consider that conversation dead now.

So, as much as I lament this issue in the blogosphere, I seem to have become a part of the problem on more than one occasion. You see, I’m troubled by how we read. By that, I don’t mean the distractibility that comes with jumping around with hyperlinks (a discussion in itself), but rather the idea that we “consume” our media. In fact, that is the phrase that is used to describe how we read and watch and listen in tech circles, as though the words of our authors, the conversation of our actors and hosts, and the  notes of our musicians are commodities that we somehow own simply because we’ve purchased them or pay some sort of subscription or access fee. Thus, we “consume” our media. This sounds like a gluttonous act, one that makes me envision some sort of over-filled, greedy eater shoveling more and more into his mouth in order to satiate an appetite that is without end.

The difference, I’ve talked about before, is between “consuming” media, and “engaging” media. The same is true of art. We can take it in, or we can stop to think about it, appreciate it. We can go out to coffee and talk about it later. All of that has to do with “engaging” the art. The same should be true of “engaging” our media.

But what does this have to do with the blogosphere?

Excuse me, because I know I’m reprising a theme here that I’ve already discussed on more than one occasion. However, permit me to point out the obvious that a conversation cannot occur if more than one person isn’t talking. If one person is speaking (or writing) and everyone else is simply listening (or reading), then that is public address, not conversation. When we “consume” media, we read and watch and listen, and then repeat as necessary, feeling proud of all of the information and great art that we’ve taken in recently. But we haven’t stopped to really permit it to impact us. Talking with others is part of how it impacts us. The entire premise behind the Web 2.0 phenomenon was that this was media created and produced by everyone, not just professionals. In blogging (which was originally thought of as journaling), that involves two steps: reading someone’s thoughts, and then entering into conversation with that person (and others) by commenting. Otherwise, we’re missing part of what this whole thing is about.

In recent conversations with friends, I’ve compared this to an audience going to a play, and refusing to respond. Part of what makes a play such a powerful experience is that each performance is unique due to an unrepeatable synergy that occurs between the cast and the audience. Hopefully, the audience will cheer, cry, gasp, and ultimately applaud. Imagine, though, a play that received no audience reaction at all?  Proverbial crickets chirping in the distance. Even an audience that booed would be preferable to that, because a silent audience brings an incomplete performance.

I would argue that the same is true of reading a book without discussing it with someone else during or after. Or, similarly, listening to music, seeing visual art…the list goes on. The important part of this process is the conversation, because that’s what makes it a complete event. Even when I don’t comment on other’s posts, I often end up discussing the ideas in that post with someone else. That’s better than silence.

Ironically, other social media platforms are experiencing similar losses of interactivity. How many “Twitter voyeurs” do you know that read what everyone else is saying without offering any words of their own? How many status updates do you actually comment on while perusing Facebook? In how many conversations do you participate on LinkedIn? We’re all to happy to watch everything go by us, somehow thinking we’re doing well to sit back and observe without actually contributing anything ourselves.

Certainly, not every post or video or update invites comment. Further, I’m not looking to place blame for this on one cultural phenomenon or the other, or to come across as whiny because I want people to comment here more (many of you do through one channel or another). The point is that we must, for the sake of ourselves and of our society, stop “consuming” media as we would any other product, because doing so cheapens it. When we “engage,” then everyone participating in the conversation is bettered by the dialogue.

That, I’m relatively certain, is the point.

Photo Attribution: gerlos

A Review of “Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue”

Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue by Todd E. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“”Performing the Sacred” is written as a dialogue, alternating chapters between a theologian and a theatre artist. This is a more contemporary, and significantly more accessible, installment to the canon of work on theo-dramatics, and focuses on application rather than new theory. As a result, there really isn’t any new theological ground covered here. What the authors do well, however, is synthesize existing sources into a cohesive whole for a modern intersection of theology and theatre.

Of course,  I’m immediately fascinated by interdisciplinary work, and this is no exception. Savidge’s history of theatre’s interaction with the institution of the Church is thorough, though unfortunately written in a somewhat dry and academic tone. Ironically, Johnson’s theological discussion is written in a more lively tone, and is just as thorough. Both interact not only with previous modern discussion in the theo-dramatic canon (such as Harris’ “Theatre and Incarnation”), but also with such theological greats as Tillich and Kierkegaard, as well as working through the philosophical underpinning of Plato and Tertullian, and how these thinkers have impacted the theatrical arts.

Johnson identifies three theological components of theatre: incarnation, community, and presence. Again, the thought here is not drastically new for anyone who has read any theological treatments of theatre previously. What Savidge and Johnson do, however, is speak to the modern implications of this thought. The biggest take-away for me by far is the argument to the higher validity of theatre over more “virtual” arts (such as streaming media, or even film and television). The authors argue, rightfully, that the substance level of most television programming is not only far inferior to theatre, but also loses effectiveness in becoming an imitation of a more real event, in the way that speaking with someone face-to-face is more real and conducive to good communication than is a phone conversation. Thus, theatre is always more real an event than film or television, because an audience interacts with a theatrical performance in a manner that makes each performance unique. This is accomplished because the performers are present in the same space as the audience. The only aspect of this throught process that I find to be problematic is that film and television are not entirely vacuous, and good art exists in both mediums. The authors almost leave the reader with the impression that both are forever inferior to theatre. Also problematic is established rhetorical theory that claims an observer of any static artwork forever alters both the work and themselves. However, in fairness to the authors, the implied superiority of theatre that I mention is just that: implied; it is never overtly stated and the book does not leave room to treat the issue at length.

I found the final chapters a bit prescriptive at times, but thought provoking overall, for both artists active in the theatre, as well as any person of faith engaging with theatre from the audience.

Anyone with a theological bent would find this book informative, especially if he/she has not explored the intersection of theology and theatre before, in which case this book is very readable and will provide you with a launching point and direction for deeper reading.  Any theatre artist who is practicing from a faith-informed worldview will appreciate this book as well. Slightly academic, but still a good read, and worth having on your shelf.

View all my reviews

You can purchase “Performing the Sacred” here.

House Lights and Hoops

Over a dinner party with friends Monday evening, the conversation turned to athletics. Specifically, college basketball, and the commentary and analysis of Charles Barkley. A friend thinks his analysis of the game is incredibly in-depth and deserving of respect. I’ve never been able to stand Barkley, from the first time I saw him play to the time he retired from the Phoenix Suns. I suppose I was never really interested in his commentary. He just irritated me. My friend says that that he projects a “tough guy” image, but that he is very good as a commentator.

Sort of a character in a play.

When I was an undergrad student and incredibly involved in nearly every production that came down the line in my theatre program, I discovered that I was a bit of an anomaly amongst my fellow theatre students, because I enjoyed watching sports. Specifically, I liked professional basketball. I wore Orlando Magic t-shirts. They had difficulty understanding why, and I had difficulty communicating the theatrical thrill of the opening introductions of the players (light show included) through the (hopefully) nail-biting close calls and amazing shots that kept me glued to the screen.

I realized, even at the time, that learning to love basketball was a way to connect with my father. He had played basketball through high school and in college, and we had difficulty understanding each other. He didn’t really get the theatre thing, but he tried very, very hard, for my sake. I thought the least I could do was to work toward an interest in basketball, as a way to connect with him. It worked. It was the launching point for a renewed relationship with my father.

I haven’t watched basketball since a few years ago, around my first semester of grad school, I think, when the L.A. Lakers had an historic starting lineup and couldn’t pull out a championship season. I determined then that it had become about the individual players, and not the love of the game. Sort of like how a prima donna ruins a production by robbing the play’s cast of its camaraderie. In any cast, I haven’t really watched professional basketball since. Perhaps not so coincidentally, neither has my father.

I don’t think I’m all that odd for being a “creative type” that enjoys athletics (I’m still a big tennis fan). In fact, I have many artist friends who follow various athletic seasons with much more intensity than myself. I’ve theorized that there’s a theatrical quality to athletic competition, something deeper than just spectacle. The spectacle, though, was okay in itself, and I didn’t explore the thoughts too deeply.

Todd Johnson solidified my theory that athletic events are, in fact, theatrical. The drama of the competition is, of course, the reason that those of us who watch sports are engaged (I’ve come up off of the sofa yelling at many a buzzer-beating shot in my life). Johnson says that this is framed, though, in the larger context of the story…the “through-line,” if you will…behind the game. Michael Jordan’s incredible game winning shot was incredible in itself, but stunning against the backdrop that it won the game at the last minute, and that it was the last game of his career (well, until he returned from retirement), and that he had succeeded despite the family tragedy he had experienced. Johnson says that this story is told through the commentary surrounding the actual competition of the game, and attributes this to the explosion in popularity of various sports commentary media outlets in recent years. I think this is also why many sports fans remember specific games like we remember great movies or plays, looking back to a particular performance with great nostalgia. Following the stories can have a positive impact on the audience, such as my relationship with my father. Participating in the story builds a camaraderie that is easily equivalent to the cast and crew of a play.

So my love of watching basketball was no contradiction to my theatrical bent. I was simply a spectator to a different type of theatre, one that told the drama of fellow humans in the same time but a different space, rather than fictional characters. I’ve always suspected that theatre explains a great deal of life. This just goes to prove that point.

Photo Attribution: ToastyKen

Taking My Cue

This weekend I attended a conference on applied theatre. Applied theatre (overly simplified) is the practice of using the art of theatre to contribute to the social good. For example, theatre techniques can be used as very effective treatment modalities for individuals on the autism spectrum, or as conflict resolution techniques. One of the tracks available at the conference was “theatre of the oppressed.” While this wasn’t the track for which I had registered, I had an opportunity to participate briefly in two of the exercises that this track hosted, and I was moved beyond words.

Theatre of the Oppressed was originated as a concept by Augusto Boal, and is (way overly simplified) a theatrical technique used to draw the actor and audience into dialogue with each other. The exercises place you into someone else’s proverbial shoes, forces you to appreciate another’s perspective. The participator in the exercises in which I engaged this weekend is forced to feel the discomfort of someone in a less fortunate position than he or she is. The participator goes from being comfortable to uncomfortable, and is forced to consider why.

The first exercise in which I had a chance to participate is called “Columbian hypnosis.” With another actor, one holds his or her palm toward the other’s face, and the second actor has to keep his or her face the same distance away from the first actor’s palm (without touching it), regardless of where the first actor moves the palm. Then, the actors switch. Then, a third actor is added to the group, and all three have an opportunity to be leaders. Did I mention there can be no talking? First, I was the second actor. The only thing you can focus on is the palm of the hand in front of you. Some participants felt at ease, others felt discomfort at a loss of control (although anyone feeling any acute emotions, of course, stops the exercise whenever they like). During the three-person variation, a male actor was leading two females, and expressed a feeling of unease at this. One of the female actors expressed something similar initially. I discovered this huge sense of responsibility in leading two other actors around, knowing that they had to go wherever I told them during the exercise. I recognized that I had to take care of them.

In the second exercise, a huge group of people (around 70 or more I think), were divided into groups of three. Each actor began making a specific noise and movement combination, whatever they liked. They then had to “morph” with the other two until all three were doing the exact same sound/movement combination. Then that group morphed with another group of three, and then the larger group with another, until all 70 + of us were doing the same sound/movement combination. This was an exercise in compromise. Each person initially, and then each group, came into each “morph” with something they weren’t willing to give up, and others that they were. In a sense, the final unison of all of us contained a part of each of our original sound/movement choices, and was arguably better than the first. Some gave in immediately and morphed, others held out. In the end, there was respect and sense of commonality among all the actors.

Those two exercises moved me through a sense of humility, to a sense of responsibility, to a sense of respect. Obviously, I don’t have to tell you the implications. These exercises are physical imagery to assist one in appreciating the powerlessness or passion of another, another that one has the ability to impact. We are all in a position of influence or power over another: a parent to a child, a police officer to the violator of the law, an employer to an employee. There are just and unjust ways to exercise that power, and erring on the side of the just begins with appreciating the position, feelings, and humanity of the other person. These theatre techniques assist you in recognizing those things.

As though to come full circle, I listened to a great conversation after returning home about appreciating differences and being human with each other despite those differences. The person being interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah, talked about the immediacy of expression in our digital age…how we’re quick to send a caustic email when frustrated with someone else, saying things that we likely wouldn’t say with an hour to cool off (I have painful first-hand experience of that). He also talked about making an intentional effort to talk to people that hold opposite perspectives than yours, and recognizing them as people, regardless of their perspectives. He doesn’t advocate discarding your own beliefs to do so, or to affirm a perspective that you believe to be wrong, but to (in my words) become acquainted with where the other person’s views originate. 

What I’m inspired to work more diligently toward (appreciating others’ perspectives) by the interview, the theatre exercises had already motivated me to begin. In spiritual language, we call that “convergence.” The theatre activities that I experienced this weekend were profoundly moving, and I believe I’ll be adding as well as giving up during the rest of the Lenten season: endeavoring to add patience and respect to those relationships in which I find myself in a position of influence. 

Because, if we all took our influence as a more sacred obligation, we just might make this whole experience a little better for everyone. 

Photo Attribution: Steve Snodgrass