By Brian "Dyalekt" Kushner, member of the 2013 Emerging Writers Group
Hi, my name is Dyalekt, and I'm a theater head. A junkie, an addict, a Stan. I find no joy greater than the moment where people do stuff in front of me. Scripted, improv, whatever. I've seen Shakespeare in the Park, and the parking lot. One time I saw a 15 minute musical in a van (it was awefulsome). I've seen rock bands in fantastical costumes, and rappers turn concerts into funky monologues. I've been to readings on rooftops, in kitchens, and cafeterias. B-Boy cyphers made theaters in the round, as Soul Train lines made thrusts. I've always craved the moment where a group of people get into a groove, fall into a world, share energy. That's my church. That's where I find my universal truths, and my connection to my fellow man & woman. That's why I go to the theater.
Why do you go to the theater?
I ask because I see potential theater fanatics all the time. Most of them have never seen an actual play. They go to indie rap shows where MCs frequently cut the beat to perform soliloquies (they call them a capellas, or acapulcos if you're nasty). They go to underground parties in illegal locations where daredevils dance with fire, and you can use the stationary bike to power a vodka-milkshake-making blender. They stop for every street performer, and allow cute young folks to kick that Children's International, sign my petition, I'm-not-selling-candy-for-no-basketball-team game all day. They crave stories. Movies are fine, but there's a connection missing. Those guys on the screen filmed this flick months ago. None of the actors are going to pause to let laughter subside. The rhythm of films belong to the films, and the audience can only ride that rhythm, not affect it. That's not what these people need. They need to be a part of the story. They need people doing stuff in front of them. They need to share some energy.
Why don't they go to plays? My best guess is that they don't feel they have permission to participate. Permission is as easy to grant (When I say "hey", you say "ho") as it is to deny (our tickets are $175, and our theater is located conveniently close to Times Square, the amorphous mass of sightseeing and commerce). The barriers are more than physical, they deal with a sense of belonging. It's why my students from Quisqueya Heights never go downtown, despite being from the same borough. The theater is not a safe space for them. They don't know what they should wear, or how much they should react to what's happening. The theater feels as formal as a classroom. The theater, where drunks and brigands had much to do about nothing, is apparently mired in etiquette.
Etiquette has a connotation of "manners," but roots in out of touch elitism. According to Dorothea Johnson, of the Protocol School of Washington, the word ‘etiquette’ used to mean "keep off the grass." Louis XIV’s gardener noticed that the aristocrats were walking through his gardens and put up signs, or étiquets, to ward them off. The dukes and duchesses walked right past these signs. Due to this blatant disregard, the King of Versailles decreed that no individual was to go beyond the bounds of the étiquets.
Etiquette literally means "stay off my lawn."
I had the opportunity to see Into the Woods in its closing performance at Shakespeare (err, Sondheim) in the Park. Waiting in line for tickets is its own sort of theater, where college students, hippies, businessfolk, tourists and artisans sit calmlyish in line for a million hours for a chance to see a play with some movie stars in it for free. (I heard if you came after 2:00 AM the night before, you weren't seeing Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice). Those same movie stars who are usually separated from us by time and distance now share their rhythm with however this audience is going to react, not to mention the rest of the city. This is the place to bring my aforementioned story cravers, right?
The cat next to me seemed to fit the description. Slightly miffed that he and his wife weren't sitting together, and uncomfortable in his seat, he was literally* not fitting in. The lady next to my date was far more comfortable. She regaled us with her harrowing tales of fellow patrons daring to ask her to stand as they brushed past. Didn't they know this was her space? She also had a friend who won a Tony. During the performance, homie to my right starts eating the potato chips that he picked up at the concession stand. I think I heard him, but only barely above the laughter and sirens and New York City. I think I heard him but I really became aware of his eating when a man in front of me turned around and screamed at him to STOP EATING!
Things settled 'til intermission, where the eater and the screamer argued about who was ruder. The Screamer was backed by the Tony Winner Friend Haver (TWFH), who was offended too, but afraid to yell at a large man (in a theater full of laughter). The Eater appealed to a sense of appropriateness by reminding the pair that berating other audience members is usually reserved for Yankees games (take that however you want, Yankee fans). He was trumped by the TWFH dropping "If this isn't a Yankee game, you shouldn't be eating" on him. I attempted to intervene, as these people were all arguing (yes, literally) over me. I offered that theater is a circular experience, and we must be tolerant and respectful of each other for the magic to work. Theater, right? The Eater facilitated by conceding that eating may be distracting, but his preferred method of being informed about such matters is ANYTHING OTHER THAN SCREAMING. The Screamer, armed with the privilege of seeing (and paying for) hundreds of plays, defended his rights to drag everyone in his section out of the experience by proclaiming, "This isn't about theater, it's about etiquette."
Get off my lawn.
Sure, prices are too high, and intermissions are antiquated, and theaters don't exist in many communities, but that's not the only thing that keeps the heads out. Those of us already in the circle have the opportunity to reach out to them, and push them away. Turns out the Eater was a Shakespeare fan, but only knew Into the Woods from his mother's double vinyl soundtrack. He's at many live events and works with performers of all disciplines. I hope to see him in line next year. I'll bring yogurt, or marshmallows. Something soft.
*Don't judge me. I like that "literally" is a new slang word for "kinda almost literally, but it's really kinda hyperbole." It's the new "totally."
Brian "Dyalekt" Kushner is the Education Director of the proposed New Brooklyn Theater (newbrooklyntheater.com), and his band Deathrow Tull (DeathrowTull.com) has a new music video http://tinyurl.com/8p8hed4
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.