All posts by Michael
Through Lines: the Celebrity in All of Us
In his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman uses theatre and performance as analogies to describe all our social interactions. He argues, in essence, that we are actors, consciously or unconsciously performing our identities for and to others. For different audiences, we no doubt assume different roles, responding like actors to environment, stimuli, and relationship, as we seek our broader super objectives. Like actors, we appreciate the applause, even if our performance is less than stellar. Many of us can also acknowledge that those identities we perform for the people around us are as much a fiction as the characters the theatrical actor assumes over a lifetime: so much smoke and mirrors—and a lot of make-up—even if built on the actor’s psyche and physique.
In this sense, it is not surprising that the celebrity performer has assumed such a high degree of acclaim in our society. If we are all performing the fiction of our identity, then why not tip our collective hat to those actors, athletes, musicians, newscasters, politicians, who have risen to the top through their ability to perform their identities to the public.
Just how far the celebrity performer has risen really came home to me this New Year while watching an ABC evening newscast “In Memoriam: People We Lost in 2012.” Of the 86 people whose deaths were notable, 45 of them were performers—actors, singers, musicians. Eleven more of them were writers or speakers of some kind—journalists, authors, newscasters, and a motivational speaker. The next closest categories were those serving in the government, non-performing artists, and athletes. There was one inventor, N. Joseph Woodland, who co-invented the barcode; one soldier—Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who famously co-designed the blitzkrieg used in Iraq I, 1991; and one regular person—Rodney King, who, of course, performed unwittingly on video along with the gaggle of LA cops who were kicking and tasering him.
Now, I’m not disputing anyone’s right to be listed in ABC’s “In Memoriam” dedication. A notable death is a notable death, but can we seriously accept the fact that in 2012 there wasn’t at least one notable educator who died, or one police officer, or pastor, or architect, or engineer? Clearly, there must have been a notable scientist or two who died, but not according to ABC. One can only assume that the criteria used to determine which 86 people would be highlighted must have defined “notable” in such a way as to favor the celebrity, or those whose performed identities played out on the electronic media.
I make note of this phenomena not simply because it is but one more piece of evidence suggesting the circular logic of the electronic media, i.e., they decide what is important based on what is important for them. For me, the danger of this trend is twofold. On the one hand, by socially elevating the celebrity performer we acknowledge that we appreciate the act of performing more than the content of the performance itself. Perhaps, this happens because the content of any performance is temporal, as temporal as last night’s rendition of Shear Madness. Thus, why not celebrate the performance as an end in-and-of-itself? This kind of thinking might explain our political actors’ determination to perform the same fiscal cliff / sequester cliff drama over and over again until we are numb with exhaustion.
On the other hand, even more disturbing is what our obsession with celebrity reveals about our values. It seems as if we value the celebrity performer and his or her fiction more than the people who really do the day-to-day work of improving our society. In other words, the actor who mimics the lawyer, the cop, the doctor, the teacher, the scientist is more notable than the people he or she mimics, the people who perform those professions in life, making an actual difference in our lives. And I say this, even though I love actors and the work they do, albeit on the stage more than in film where the camera is the real star.
So, as each of us prepares for our roles today as father or mother, clerk or caring friend, let us acknowledge and salute the performer in all of us, and let the celebrity take a step or two—or three—toward the back of the line. For it is the authentic flesh and blood doer of deeds who actually makes a difference in our lives. Let us make notable the EMT who examines the gunshot victim and stops the bleeding: not the actress on TV who imitates her between make-up touch-ups, lighting adjustments, and a shout of “Action!”
Through Lines: What is the Community in Theatre?
Whether we are discussing the ranks of the large professional theatres like the Shakespeare Theatre, or the mid-sized Regionals like Woolly Mammoth or Studio Theatre, or community theatres like the Little Theatre of Alexandria or Silver Spring Stage, what is most important about theatre has always been the community it supports and engenders. That’s right! Forget the actors and singers! Forget the directors—musical, managing, and artistic! Forget the playwrights and theatrical devisors, set and costume and lighting designers, technicians and stage managers, publicists and PR experts! Forget them all! It is the community of folk who gather in front of or round the stage that determines the nature and identity of that thing we call theatre.
We have an audience. You have a show. Let’s get them together!
Enter a theatre, purchase a ticket or two or three, mingle among the crowd or stand against a far wall, walk into the auditorium and sit among the audience, and suddenly you exist in association, in association with those other people sitting around you. Suddenly, you are that theatre’s community, its identity of like-minded individuals who have come to see a show. It does not make any difference if you like the performance that you will soon experience, or not. Or that you might be at that production for reasons other than to see the show. Like it or not, even if you go to a show because that’s what your boyfriend wants or that’s what your child needs, you still—at that moment—have that community’s identity. In some small way, you are that farce, that Greek tragedy, that 1940’s musical, that one-man show, that contemporary experimental drama, or even that revival of Oh Calcutta! And you will leave the theatre marked as such.
Behind the Fourth Wall: I’ve got a Barn. Let’s put on ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘The Nutcracker’ or…
Now let me play the holiday season’s favorite character—Scrooge! That’s the bah humbug part, not the money grubbing, no time off for family and friends part, the part that asks: “Does Washington really need all of these Christmas shows? I mean—really?”.
It’s bad enough that TV has begun airing its traditional favorites from White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Streetto Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, to new favorites likeNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story to newer favorites like The Grinch and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but they are also piling on additional 21st century ones from It’s Christmas, Carol and Hitched for the Holidays to Matchmaker Santa and That Cyborg Santa’s Got an Ax (not really, but a sci-fi fan can dream!).
And it’s even worse that Black Friday, that beginning of Commercial Christmas’s selling season—though not yet an official holiday—has become solidified in our national consciousness as a day where it is our patriotic duty to shop for Santa. Although stores have been starting their sales in Black Friday’s wee hours for 30+ plus years and, then, last year many opened at midnight, this year Target and Walmart moved Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday. Pretty soon, those Black Friday sales will have Labor Day in their sights!
And to top it off Fox News has made “The War on Christmas” its annual holiday event, during which its pundits claim that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea of Christmas is under siege by atheists and civil libertarians alike, who are out to do away with America’s number one cultural obsession.
So do so many of Washington’s theatres have to make a Christmas show such a cultural given as well? According to my research, this December there are no fewer than 17 professional Christmas shows in the immediate Washington area alone: no fewer than 6 Christmas Carols and 4 Nutcrackers, A White Christmas, a couple of gritty punked out Christmas shows, a Christmas show on the prairie and one in Ireland, a Christmas pageant, and a one-man version of A Wonderful Life. And I’m not even counting the Christmas concerts!
I mean, is all this abundance really necessary? Does it help theatres meet their bottomline? Does it help them fulfill their patriotic duty? Does it help people get into the Christmas spirit? Are Christmas shows like prayers helping us all bring Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men? If they are, then one would think that there would be a little more evidence that their abundance worked. Last I looked, however, our politicians are still just as gridlocked in their nastiness, the war in Afghanistan still wages on interminably, the Middle East is still on the verge of Armageddon, and traffic in DC is just as hostile as its ever been. Hence, these shows do not seem to be bewitching anyone’s disposition—even briefly.
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