Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Diversity of E Pluribus Unum

Democracy is built on a multiplicity of voices -- E Pluribus Unum, right? From the many, one. That motto is the description of a process: unification that develops through the consideration and integration of many viewpoints. And it never ends -- there are always new voices to consider, because times change and new people are either born, arrive from elsewhere, or begin to speak -- so the unum is always temporary, contingent, a circle.

There are people who believe we ought to just be happy with the pluribus -- "you believe what you want, I'll believe what I want, let's just not talk about it" -- a concept of social balkanization, intellectual separatism. This is becoming easier in our mass media world where we can create a gated intellectual community with the touch of a computer filter button. But a functional democracy is built on constant friction.

If you look at the way that "Angels in America" Part 2 ends, it is with a conversation between a straight Mormon woman, a gay Jewish man, a gay Protestant man, and an gay African-American man. They are talking about Perestroika in Russia, not directly about diversity, not about sexuality, not about religion (although all of these things are or very easily could be brought into the conversation). Rather, they are talking about something happening in the world that they see through different lenses. They are a diverse group sharing ideas, which gives those ideas dimensionality, depth. Because we have two eyes, we are able to perceive depth, because each eye perceives the same object from a slightly different viewpoint. The world seen through only one eye, from only one viewpoint, is flattened. On the other hand, think of how deep an object might look if we each had dozens of eyes. But we don't; we have two. So the best way to attain depth, to add dimensionality, is by seeing the world through the aggregated eyes of diverse people who discuss what they've seen.

A play gives us a view of the world as seen through the playwright's two eyes. That view of the world is passed on to the theatre artists who transform the text from two dimensional words on a page to four dimensional embodied experience -- a production. In the process, they add many more eyes to the worldview, and so add depth. This four-dimensional embodied experience (the production) is then observed by those who are in the audience, who add even more eyes, more experience, more dimensionality. Thus, depth is added to the work not to the extent that it is unified, but to the extent that it is diverse. The more diversity at each stage of the process, the richer the artistic experience becomes.

That's the pluribus part; where theatre falls down is in the unum.

Unum results from the sharing of diverse viewpoints, so that each individual experience of the production is informed by the aggregated viewpoints of the group. Anyone who has ever posted a controversial idea on a blog ought to recognize the truth of this instinctively. Our ideas acquire complexity and depth to the extent that they are informed by the comments of those who read them and either disagree or agree while adding on.

But our current model of theatre skips this process entirely. People are allowed into the theatre thirty minutes prior to the show, are plunged into darkness during the show so that they cannot see each other, are told to shut up while the show is in progress so that they cannot share their observations, and then they are hustled out of the theatre as soon as the show is over so they cannot share their viewpoints with anyone other than the people they came in with (and usually not with them, either). In other words, we miss the greatest opportunity for our productions to resonate most powerfully: dialogue, discussion, diversity. With apologies to Hegel, the play is the thesis, the spectator's experience is the antithesis, and then we skip the synthesis, the unum, entirely and thus short-circuit entirely the dialectic process that leads to progress, to understanding. We all of us, artists and spectators alike, are allowed to remain within our personal comfort zones and are not asked to incorporate the viewpoints of anyone else.

At the "Defining Diversity" convening at Arena Stage last weekend, the second day was spent doing what in educational circles is known as "fishbowling." A subset of the participants were asked to sit at a central table to discuss a specific topic, and the rest of the group sat in a circle surrounding the table listening to the conversation. That's theatre, right? The group at the table talked and the other listened. The members of the outside circle were not allowed to interject, nor were the people at the table allowed to engage with those in the outside circle. However, that wasn't the end of it. After a topic was finished being discussed, there were breakout sessions where everyone was remixed into groups to further discuss what was said at the table. It wasn't a Q & A session where the members of the outside circle asked the table people what they meant, which in the theatre world is the equivalent of the traditional post-show discussion where the actors (the table people) are questioned by a handful of audience members (the outside circle). No, everybody talked to each other as equals, sharing our ideas, our reactions, our perspectives.

And from those discussions can emerge an unum, a temporary understanding that comes from having many voices heard. We weren't all in agreement after the breakouts -- unum doesn't mean unanimity; but we all had been unified through shared experience. There was a closeness created, a relatedness, a unity, a collective respect. And as discussion followed discussion, that respect deepened.

There are some who say that we, the artists and the spectators, are afraid of diversity, because we dislike being asked to confront aspects of reality with which we are uncomfortable. I disagree. In my opinion, what makes people avoid diversity is an understanding borne of experience that they will be confronted with a viewpoint that makes them uncomfortable or with which they disagree, one that often will portray them as villains, and then they will not be allowed to share their experience or response with anyone -- not the other spectators, and certainly not with the artists. They will have been shocked, accused, disrespected, and then silenced.

Theatre today takes a sit-down-and-shut-up approach to the audience. Artists are hostile to the audience, fear them, disrespect them. I can't tell you how many times over the weekend I heard disparaging references to the "blue hairs" in the audience, as if age somehow made them less human, less aware, less intelligent. This is the American youth culture at its ugliest, one that dismisses the wisdom of age as irrelevant. But if we took the time to discuss a play with these spectators, we would soon come to another conclusion, and their insights and observations would enrich our understanding of the play and of our society. Age, after all, is a kind of diversity.

There was a great deal of hand-wringing over the weekend about how we could get a more diverse audience, a more diverse company of artists, a more diverse season. Many solutions were offered, many of which would benefit the theatre if implemented. To these solutions, I would add one that is easily done, and that would lay the groundwork for greater diversity through a greater sense of understanding: build into each production a discussion. Let people talk to each other as a part of the play. Not as something that happens after the lights are turned on, but as a part of the play. Stop the play and ask the audience a question, and then have them turn in their seats and discuss amongst themselves for five minutes. Make sure they talk to people they don't know, not just those they came with. At the very least, put this before the curtain call, so it isn't an add-on, but an expected part of the show. Big regional theatres with a ton of space ought to then make a room, or part of the lobby, available after the show for those who want to talk about the play. Get facilitators to help stimulate the conversation. Let people talk to each other.

Focus not only on the pluribus, but on actively, consciously, intentionally facilitating the creation of unum.


Jeremy McGuire said...

There is a wonderful theory extant that the reason the ancient civilizations on the east-west corridor from Spain to China advanced while those north and south of it did not is this very question of insularity v diversity. Those peoples who remain insular do not progress because they never have to refine ideas in the face of opposition and diversity of culture.
You make some excellent points. If we are to continue to progress and not stagnate, engagement is necessary.

David Dower said...

Thanks for this, Scott. And for your participation in the weekend's events. There will be more like that where this came from. And for the record, we're doing a lot of the thesis/anti-thesis stuff at Arena and it's altering the entire relationship of the theater to our community.

Oh, and those blue-haireds? In our subscriber group, the longest tenured are the most adventurous by far. And they want us to risk, and to engage them, and to diversify. They are very vocal about their disappointments when we don't. So, no, we don't disparage their presence in the least. We're actually just trying to merit it!

Scott Walters said...

David -- I came away from the weekend with the clear impression that Arena is in the forefront of this sort of innovation. I know that, as moderator and convener, you were constrained to keep a fairly low profile during the discussions, but I must admit I wish you could have been more vocal.

Glad to hear about the blue hairs, and the discussions. And I'm glad it makes a difference.

I get impatient with the gratuitous bashing of the elders of our society. We make a lot of mistakes because we disdain their collective wisdom simply because they don't like the same style of music as young people.

A Good Husband said...

I work in social media as my 'day job' and one of the things that I often have to help my clients understand is that it's not about the technology, it's about the cultural shift in our society. People have always had a desire to be open, approachable, and connected. Social Media, as it were, has enabled this kind of intrinsic behavior.

Theatre should be rejoicing and embracing this kind of renaissance. Facilitating discussion during the show, whether it's with the person next to you or via Twitter or some other medium, this is our opportunity to capture the imaginations of the populace.

Thanks for this blog post. It gets me excited to know there are theatre artists out there who want to embrace that discussion.

Uke Jackson said...

Excellent! I really enjoyed reading this. Glad I found your blog.

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