Friday, October 31, 2008

"Nobody really knows what it's like to be someone else"



There’s a beautiful moment in Imagination Stage’s newest play, Playing from the Heart, when a father is talking to his despairing teenage daughter. He’s doing his best to comfort and support her through high school where she’s struggling to fit in and succeed in orchestra class. Little wonder since despite being diagnosed as profoundly deaf, young Evelyn is intent upon a career in music! “Nobody,” he tells her, “really knows what it’s like to be someone else.” It’s a moment of honesty, of a harsh truth. The words comfort Evelyn because they are offered out of love. But the statement is big. It speaks to one of the tragedies of the human condition. We are ultimately alone. With all the diligence in the world, our parents cannot always protect us from harm, from accidents of birth, from fate. With all the will in the world, our parents cannot always give us what we most desire from life. We must each find our own way and wherewithal to pursue our dreams. Understanding this fact, accepting it, persevering anyway, is part of growing up.

That said, the paradox that delights me is that a play like Playing from the Heart does much to mitigate the isolation we may sometimes feel as individuals trapped in our singular consciousnesses. The journey on which playwright Charles Way leads us through the young life of internationally renowned solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie allows every audience member to imagine what it’s like not just to be someone else, but someone else who is extraordinary. We share her young life on a farm in Scotland, we feel her fear as she loses her hearing, we applaud her determination to pursue music, we share her frustration with the naysayers, and laugh and cry at her ultimate success.

To my mind this kind of children’s theatre is true entertainment. It allows a child in the audience to “entertain” a life experience that she has never had. It allows her, from the safety of her seat, to imagine how devastating it would be to feel one of her senses slipping away. It sensitizes her to the perspective of people with hearing loss, or indeed to anyone else whom she might previously have been tempted to underestimate due to their class, their color or their country of origin.

Yes, Evelyn’s Dad is ultimately right that nobody really knows what it’s like to be someone else. But a well written play can take us pretty darn close!
JS

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Parents as Gatekeepers

“Well, I thought the show was pretty awful but little Jeremy LOVED it!”

This is the review of entertainment for children that I hear countless times from Moms or Dads when they tell me about performances they have taken their youngsters to see outside Imagination Stage. Let’s look at the implications underlying this statement because I find them all disturbing.

It might mean:
Although I’m an adult, I doubt my taste in theatre is as good little Jeremy’s.
Or worse:
Little Jeremy isn’t smart enough to judge good theatre from bad.
Or worse still:
Anything that amuses Jeremy for 60 minutes is fine by me!

Now I know parents in the Washington area to be a highly sophisticated group, well-educated, conscientious and devoted to doing the very best by their children. And yet the same parents who ration meals at McDonalds, who limit screen time, and insist on a sensible bed-time are also spending good money to drag innocent and developing minds to Disney on Ice, 102 Dalmatians or The Wiggles Live in Concert! Of course, most children will enjoy such things. After all, it’s a special treat. It’s an outing, an occasion. An excuse for buttery popcorn or a box of Milk Duds. And, most importantly, Mom and/or Dad has endorsed this show simply by choosing the excursion. Only a really ungrateful little Jeremy would complain.

Now, we all make mistakes. But we don’t need to repeat them ad nauseum. Let me encourage parents to trust their own taste in theatre and become more effective gatekeepers. You should expect more from a visit to the theatre than from most TV shows, video games or other forms of escapist entertainment. There should be beauty, wit, imagination, artistry and meaning on stage. It’s no accident that at Imagination Stage we specialize in “serious fun.”

Next time you suffer through an endless hour at a mediocre children’s entertainment, ask yourself if you are not doing more harm than good. If we are what we eat, we also grow to love whatever kind of theatre we see.

By Janet Stanford

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