Why I’m going back to the theater

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I’m going back to see “Vicuña” again.

Two weeks ago, I said,

Vicuña, John Robbin Baitz’s world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is going to be a radically different play in a week.

That’s not because he’s going to change anything but because the country is going to change around it.

When I wrote those lines I, like so many of us, assumed that the country would change to leave “Vicuña” and the Trump-like character at its center, Kurt Seaman, behind.  I wondered whether the election would render this play “an odd comic footnote or a prophetic, tragic warning?” I assumed comic footnote.

I was wrong.

So I’m going back to the theater to see how the world has now changed this play.  

I shudder to think how the profane comedy will play on the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theater now that it is no longer a dismissable 4 week run but instead an inescapable 4 year term. I’m going back to look more deeply at what John Robbin Baitz was trying to tell us onstage. What did I miss? What did we miss?

I’m going back to the theater because it’s where we learn to listen to the other.

In a moment where suddenly the notion that our leader might not be “one of us” feels less like a foreign, red state idea, I must replay the last two acts of our national drama to understand what pain I missed and what voices I dismissed. I need to relearn that theatrical lesson that everyone onstage matters and see who we have forgotten: I need to be reminded of that essential empathy we learn through drama.

I’m going back to the theater because it’s where democracy began.

I’ve written in recent weeks about the shared birthplace of western theater and democracy – ancient Greece. The Greeks believed, roughly 2500 years ago, that theater was so important that they paid every eligible citizen to attend their theater festivals. A precondition of sitting for government was sitting in a theater.  

Against electoral maps that tell the story of major voting blocs dividing cleanly by levels of education and prophetic, dire warnings about the necessity of an educated electorate, I wonder, what did the ancient Greeks understand about the marriage between government and theater that we have forgotten?  

Is it a mere historical quirk that the century that preceded the golden age of Greek drama and democracy was one consumed by a deeply divided state that gave birth to the word “tyrant?”

I’m going back to theater because I need it.

I need the solace of a shared community, an audience. I need the complexity of a coherent narrative. I need to grapple with demons we have collectively conjured on both sides of our aisles and I need to figure out what comes next and how art can remind us of hope.

I’m going back to the theater because we’ve left something that the world desperately needs on its stages and we need to bring it back.