How our Inability to Listen has Changed Theater

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Or is it our ability to listen BETTER that has changed theater?

I’m still struggling with it.

I saw two excellent shows this weekend – needed some cleansing from the earlier week – Deaf West’s re-mount of their already excellent and now even more excellent Spring Awakening at The Wallis, and a submersive endeavor from a company I’d heard of but never been acquainted with The Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle: Part 1: The Quick and the Dead at the American Legion Post 13 in Pasadena.

But all I’ve been thinking about since is a scene from the TV show Louie.

There are two parts to the sequence. In the first part Louie and his eldest daughter are watching a play in NYC. It feels like a real play, some real names are in it, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Michael Cera, and it’s very over-wrought and eager and dramatic and played straight and Louie’s really into it. At the emotional crux of the play Louie looks over at his daughter and she’s clicking away on her fucking cellphone! He’s disgusted.

Later they’re walking home and she jumps on the phone again and he just explodes, tells her to give up the phone and castigates her for being so inattentive at the show. But here’s the turn. She wasn’t. She was fully engrossed in the show. She was googling the writer and the origins of the play and she in turn castigates him because he doesn’t know the suffering and hardship the writer went through and how the production almost never happened and how important this was and blah blah blah. But Louie can’t let it go, she was on the phone during the most important part of the production, the most important line and she missed it. No she didn’t, she responds incredulously and then quotes the line verbatim back to him, telling him that it was a profound and moving experience for her. And then with a final gut-busting blow she tells him passionately – and I’m paraphrasing – “You shouldn’t punish me just because I’m able to experience something on two planes and your aren’t.”

And Louie just withers and walks away.

Because she’s right. This is how the next generation is experiencing the world now. On a daily basis. On multiple planes. Simultaneously. To those of us who didn’t grow up with this sometimes dizzying bombardment of information and opinion, we accept it for the valuable annoyance that it is, yes, we must to survive, but we are still somewhat in awe and horror over its influence and power.

But not this generation. And not my son’s generation. This state of existence is commonplace with them, the status quo. This false intimacy with people they don’t really know. This knowledge of events and people that really have no relation to them whatsoever and yet somehow makes them feel deep emotions, of guilt, of shame, of anger, of sadness.

And these were the thoughts that popped into my head, first, while watching Johnny at the the American Legion, thoughts that then reached back and started affixing themselves to the multi-level experience of the first show I saw this last weekend, Deaf West’s Awakening. Both work on multiple levels and come at us from different places, sometimes literally, as with Johnny where competing scenes and voices, some live, some recorded, bleed into each other, straining for our attention, while with Awakening it’s the multiple levels of communication that intersect into a mesmerizing web, a collage of movement and sound, of source and cipher, that even the deficiencies of the score and the book seem to recede, trying to catch up to the mastery of the execution and the deep vision of the show. They still have yet to fit themselves into that space, unfortunately, and the sound was certainly muddy at times, but even during the show I saw, you could feel this amoeba like company already adjusting, filling the nooks and crannies right before your eyes. This will most certainly be humming within days. The talent is unlike anything you’ll see in Los Angeles.

While Johnny certainly did not move me quite as emotionally as Awakening did, it remained engrossing throughout on a cerebral level, an intricate well oiled machine, well played, well envisioned, and ultimately it did illuminate a book that I haven’t read in many years but always remembered being deeply affected by, Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.

Though I do have to say, forcing us, the audience member, to sometimes “act” along with the performers, while certainly making for a couple high moments, erred on the side of being a bit awkward for me. Always a risky thing to rely on the creativity and imagination of your audience too much. Though the lulls were probably due more to the differing talent levels of the actors in the particular scenes rather than anything else. Hey, it’s hard to act for an audience of two. Or one. Takes commitment and concentration. Some have it down better than others.

Now all this may not be news to some of you – whatever it is I’m talking about – and certainly I’m familiar with the day to day influence of this maelstrom of media, but never have I ever had such a clarity of thought about it until this sequence of spectacles started working on me, starting with the Louie episode and coalescing with a show at the American Legion Post 13 in Pasadena.

See? I’m doing it now, getting all distracted and digressive. I mean, even as I’m finishing this diatribe I find myself watching the FA Cup Championship on TV while listening to Pandora radio on my computer and checking my Facebook page on my phone.

So who the hell am I to talk?

Shit, you guys probably aren’t even listening anymore…damnit.

Comments (6)

U 12893 t 5759624

I loved reading this.
I’ve been thinking these things a lot this week as well but for different reasons.
Thanks again for taking me to Spring Awakening.

U 35088 t 4659361

Word up, JT.

U 51114 t 1847260

Wish you could have seen Wax Factory’s #aspellforfainting when it came to Son of Semele. The pound/hashtag is part of the title. (some images: https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/aspellforfainting) The idea of multiple layers to an experience is one that has fascinated me for a long time and I very much want to play with it more. We’re just scratching the surface of the iceberg here….

U 35088 t 4659361

I agree. For me though, rarely does this kind of theater hit me on an emotional level yet, it’s always very cerebral. And the stories also usually lack that sophistication that is necessary to really make me root for something solid. But it’s cool to see it all evolving before our very eyes.

U 51114 t 1847260

It will take a lot of tinkering to figure out how to marry audience agency with creators’ story but I think the possibilities go on and on. Have you ever looked into alternative reality games (ARG)? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game) I think the gaming world may offer a few suggestions for how to tell stories across media, be engaging and evocative, and maintain a sense of investment. And their weaknesses can be overcome with the strengths that theatre offers.

U 35088 t 4659361

That’s probably the next step, Flor, virtual reality, gaming and theater coming together to create an art form we can’t even yet imagine.


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