The Dark I Know So Well

"Sometimes, audiences just want to escape."


Let me expand on that...

I hear that so often, and I know a lot of theatre people believe it. But don't you be fooled. It's not true. The exact opposite is true. People want to connect. Escape is disconnection. People want to be reassured, even if only on a subconscious level, that they are not alone. That all their fears and insecurities and secrets are pretty much like everybody else's. That they're only freaks in the sense that everybody is a freak (which is the main reason Shrek has been so successful.)

I read not along ago about some university study in which most of the subjects said they think they're much worse people than anybody knows, and if their friends and family were to find out how bad they really are, they'd lose them all. That's fascinating to me. It makes me think of High Fidelity. One of its central points is that we all do horrible things to each other sometimes, even to those we love. Human relationships are very complex and human beings are fundamentally irrational, so how could the outcome be anything but messy and painful?

Not because we suck as human beings, but because it's really hard.

I like to think of Company and High Fidelity as companion pieces, about the struggle for human connection in a particular cultural zeitgeist. Why do our audiences respond so powerfully to these shows? (High Fidelity was one of New Line's all-time top sellers.) Because we all know firsthand about the complexities of relationships and our own shortcomings. We've all fucked up a relationship in one way or another. We've all been misunderstood. We've all done terrible things to people we care about. When we listen to Rob Gordon in High Fidelity tell us the ugly story of his and Laura's breakup, he becomes a Christ figure for us -- he takes on our sins -- and in the end, he is forgiven for those sins, and we are reminded that we can be forgiven for our sins too.

The same is true in Two Gentlemen of Verona -- if an asshole like Proteus can be forgiven, than anyone can be forgiven, right...? But in High Fidelity, we are also reminded that we are all "sinners," that this is something everyone in this room shares. As Rob is about to tell the story of their breakup, he starts with this:
Okay, before we do this, I need you to do me a favor. Just take a minute and think about the top five worst things that you have done to your partner.
          (He waits.)
Don't dress things up or try to explain them, just live with them for a moment.
          (A beat.)
Especially if your partner doesn't know about them.

It forces us to recognize how like Rob we all are, and it unites us with him right before he tells us the worse thing he ever did to Laura. So while we hear his story, we've got a story of our own in our heads now. We can't judge him as harshly as we would have, because we're connected to him now in our shame. That's really great writing.

I often tell people the theatre is my church. I don't think they know how seriously I mean that. The stories of the theatre nourish us and nurture us in exactly the same way as the stories in the Bible do. Through those stories and the rituals of theatre, we connect with something beyond ourselves, something bigger than this. To quote Hair, "My body is walking in space. My soul is in orbit with God, face to face, floating, flipping, flying, tripping." Good theatre is a spiritual experience every bit as real as religion, for both audience and artist. And we each get from it what we need.

We watch Passing Strange and we're reminded that searching for your place in the world is the wrong search. The point is to find your Real, your truth, your road, and let the rest take care of itself. That's a good lesson. When we watch Bobby in Company fail time after time to connect, each one of us realizes on an unconscious level that if this smart, charming, clever guy can't find The One, maybe my failure to find The One isn't entirely my fault. And maybe coupling isn't for everyone...

More than anything, audiences want the truth -- human truth -- either truth they don't already know or truth they need to be reminded of.

I know what some of you are thinking -- how do I explain Thoroughly Modern Millie or American Pie or Full House? Aren't dumb comedies about escape, about turning your brain off?

I don't think so. Or at least, not always. I think that there are dumb comedies and there are dumb comedies. I look at which dumb comedies connect to their audiences and which fail. The ones that connect all have what I'm talking about, something in their storytelling that fills a need in the audience. Millie, like all romantic comedies, reassures us that anyone can be loved. I think a lot of people feel fundamentally unlovable (or at the very least, unloved), and romantic comedy demonstrates time after time that even the most unlikely of people, even the seemingly unlovable (like Rob Gordon) can -- will? -- be loved.

Anything Goes, A Little Night Music, and Cry-Baby are all a variation on that -- about overcoming a series of obstacles to de-couple from the wrong person and re-couple with the right person. How many of us can relate to that, whether we've actually done it or just wanted to? These three shows could all be called "escapist," but they are all three a combination of Hero Myth and love story, and they deliver everything those two forms bring with them, stuff we need. They tell us that even if we're with the wrong person, there's still hope. On the other hand, Phantom of the Opera is the same story, but without the happy ending, and that serves a purpose too, to reassure us that even if we don't find true love, it's probably not our fault.

Every good story -- and every popular story -- gives us something we need. People may think they're seeking escape when they see Star Wars, but they're actually entering an incredibly carefully wrought Hero Myth story, which is a metaphor for a human life. You may think you're watching Luke Skywalker but you're really watching you. And whether or not you consciously know it, that Hero Myth is feeding you emotionally and spiritually. The same way the Bible does. The same way Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat does.

American Pie does what Rocky Horror and I Love My Wife both do -- they all tell the truth about sex in America at a particular moment, about our Puritanical, uptight, often perverse fascination with, and deep-seated fear of, Sex. And even though these stories are about really specific cultural moments, they are also timeless because this is one of those areas in which America advances reeeeeally slowly. America is totally fucked up when it comes to sex, but we're also terrified to talk about it. So we talk about it through our stories. These stories remind us that all of us are clumsy and crazy and awkward and make terrible decisions when it comes to sex. By letting us laugh at (or be horrified by) the neurotic behavior of our avatars onstage, these stories give us some self-awareness of our own unintentional silliness and hopefully they mute our inner recriminations a bit.

In the case of Full House, all the stories are about connection, almost exactly like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Barney Miller, Friends, Hair, I Love My Wife, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, High Fidelity, Rent, and of course Into the Woods, where that subliminal message is made explicit in the song "No One is Alone." We all have families -- whether they are biological or created, social, professional, artistic -- and these stories are a reminder to cling to those support systems and be aware of how they nourish us -- and also what our responsibilities are to them.

As Sondheim writes, "Careful -- no one is alone."

Kids' cartoons do the same thing as these other stories. All the Bugs Bunny cartoons are about winning/surviving with wits rather than muscle. Daffy Duck cartoons are about being clumsy and making mistakes, as we all do every day. The Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons tell us that there are real dangers in the world, but we can avoid or escape them if we're smart. Same with Road Runner and the Coyote.

Scooby-Doo offers us the same thing [title of show] and Into the Woods do -- the reminder that we can accomplish seemingly impossible things if we work together.

(I'll carve out one category here, the ironic, postmodern cartoons -- Bullwinkle, Beavis and Butthead, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Brothers -- which are intentionally about nothing. They wink at what other cartoons offer us and then reject it -- which can be funny. But they're not really storytelling as much as hipster meta-jokes.)

We know that art reflects the culture in which it's made. But think about that word reflects. We literally see ourselves -- a reflection of ourselves -- in Rob Gordon and Diana Goodman and the Brady family. You don't go to a mirror to escape -- you go to see. There's a reason that Dot asks George in "Move On," to "Give us more to see."

Once you realize that almost all storytelling -- well, all good storytelling -- offers us something emotional and/or intellectual that we need, it's pretty easy to recognize what those things are when you look at a story. It's really obvious, when you look closely, that people don't seek escape. They seek connection, reassurance, inclusion in the human story. They seek reflection.

President Obama said in 2010, "Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics." That's not escapism.

Maybe what people really mean when they say they want escape is that they want to move out of the concrete world for a while and into a world of metaphor which explains that concrete world. We watch Dexter and Breaking Bad, knowing that we too have our hidden dark sides. We want to see each week that Dexter is still safe and still loved, because if a serial killer can be safe and loved, then we must be okay, right...?

Like Dexter, both bare and Spring Awakening are emotional roller coasters, letting us explore our darkest emotions and fears and questions, but in a safe place, a darkened theatre, where we're just one of many and nothing real is at stake. These two musicals do for teenagers and adults what the original Grimm's Fairy Tales do for children, letting us work through our blackest nightmares and impulses, but in the privacy of our own minds, with no concrete consequences. Those who think New Line shouldn't produce shows with a lot of sexual content don't understand what storytelling does for us. These are emotional horror stories. And we need horror stories.

So think about all this when you're watching a movie or TV show, seeing a piece of theatre, or reading a novel. What and where is that connection we all seek from storytelling? You'll be surprised how easy it is to see it, once you start looking. The more we all understand storytelling, the better storytellers we'll all be.

We storytellers have an important job. Ben Kingsley has said about actors, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

Amen, Brother Ben.

Long Live the Musical!