Friday night, I cried my way through Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy, in part because some of the vignettes were heartbreaking, but mostly because I was so darn moved by her performance. It was gratefulness really. Thankfulness that she was sharing something with me. The very simplest form of performance happened that night: one person telling stories to other people. One voice, no gags. No flowery language, just the (real) words of other humans passed along to us. This is what the cavemen and cowboys and griots did around their campfires.
Sometimes I mind that people who make theater often make theater for people who make theater—reminds me that most of the world could give a shit about what we do—but I felt lucky to have experienced this show as an ex/occasional-actor, and I’m always happy when my own audiences are full of theater people. It must be hard to fathom the kind of bravery and focus and sharpness and imagination it takes to perform a piece like Let Me Down Easy if you’ve never had to walk onto a stage. It’s funny—when I see concerts or movies (and sometimes even theater), it looks easy to me. I forget how freaking awkward and terrifying it can be to perform, to talk in front of a camera or roomful of people … even to teach a class! Sharing an idea and being “on the spot” in order to communicate to a group is hard. It takes a lot of energy. I can’t help but wonder if the constant influx of information, talking heads, commentary, images, commercials, reality TV, tabloids and such is making what we do seem easy. Or commonplace. Or boring. Stories, for better or worse, are told to us all day every day. What drives us to take a moment, sit down in a chair, and allow a story to be told to us? Personally, the stories or abstract ideas communicated to me by theater, films and dance speak to a higher place in my brain. So far, I’ve experienced enough of everything to know when that part of my brain is being tapped into, and also to know that there’s some kind of mystical, restorative function I can’t explain going on in there. But that’s just me.
The thing is, storytelling requires a relationship. Maybe that’s what’s causing the common disconnect between audiences and performers these days, and why we do shows for our friends, and why our friends come to our shows. There has to be some sort of connection—there has to be a reason why you’re having the exchange in the first place, because live storytelling is a two-way street. If somebody shows up to a theater looking for base entertainment, he may be disappointed. Even “entertainment” shows like musicals require singing, another extremely raw way to communicate a story or feeling. Storytelling is a human compulsion, a survival tactic and emotional need. I hope that more people—especially those who don’t experience or appreciate real human exchange—realize they need to feed their brains with more than Jersey Shore. Perhaps that’s a snotty thing to say, but when I look at the masses around me, I feel empty, and when I think about, say, the inexplicably horrifying event that took place in Arizona yesterday, I feel afraid for our species. We need each other, we need to listen to each other, and we need to remember where we came from. Maybe theaters should have fire pits in them, in which to light a ceremonial opening flame … if we could get around the fire codes, that is.
Theater. For your health!