Kristy Edmunds, the executive and artistic director of UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance, thinks of the exchange between a work of theater and it's audience profoundly. She says in a short film about the arts at UCLA.
"[The] public receives [a] work and it can charge them with a very different degree of empathy. You're catapulted into a world that you didn't even ever imagine existed and it changes what you get to carry as a human being."
I've heard Kristy Edmunds say versions of this a few dozen times and while I've always appreciated the eloquence, it existed for me more in the realm of aspiration than experience. Then I spent 24 hours with 1,600 other human beings being charged by the empathy of Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" - a work that Ms. Edmunds brought to Los Angeles and was an early co-commissioner of - and now I've experienced that abstract idea made real.
At its simplest level, Taylor Mac's 24 hour odyssey is a journey through 24 decades of popular music from 1776 to 2016. More than a sung history of America, it's a act in re-imagining our shared historical baggage and in the process making the familiar strange and the strange familiar; singing from the present into our troubled past and recognizing both those things we'd rather ignore and the things we desperately need to remember.
For everything extraordinary and virtuosic that happened onstage across 24 hours of performance, what was truly revelatory is what happened in the audience. Taylor Mac was forging in our souls an experience of empathy, awareness, and experience - not simply through passively receiving the work onstage but engaging actively in interventions that ranged from the campy and absurd to moments of community to deconstructions of the very seats we were sitting in.
Yes, there was a civil war reenactment with ping pong balls but there was also waiting in line for soup during the depression, and the white flight to the suburbs: where all the white people in the center of the audience were asked to move into the side sections of the theater and all the people of color were invited to take their seats in the center. The political and spiritual order of the theater that's been reconfigured from the moments the Greeks placed a high priest at its center and Shakespeare's Globe had a royal box, was being transformed yet again. All those empty seats in the center sections spoke volumes about our past, our present, and a necessary future.
It's hard to overstate the conceptual complexity and integrity of the journey Taylor Mac created for the audience. Perhaps the most useful references for understanding the breadth of the experience are two works referenced in the piece itself: Joyce's Ulysses and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Unlike those works the moment of discovery happens not in the solitary, private mind of the reader but in the collective, awkward, public space of the theater.
As Kristy Edmunds articulates so eloquently in both her words and her programming, that changes what I get to carry as a human being.
For that, I'm profoundly grateful.