Fluorescent lights. By god, why is it always fluorescent lights? Even at the best of times they attach themselves to the nervous system like the Shirime. Have you ever encountered the Shirime? This Japanese ghost has an eyeball in his rectum and gladly exposes it to wandering travellers on moonlit roads. This kind of surreal assault afflicts one with both terror and confusion and drags blood to the back of the brain. Easy enough to deal with on a dark road outside of Kyoto, but this type of thing is more than enough to cope with in the glair of damn fluorescent lights.
With that kind of light pouring harsh vibes on the brain stem, it's hard enough to retain civil discourse much less explain your carefully researched work to a body of august scholars, but thats the situation that I was facing at my first academic conference, and I was feeling the fear. When I stood up to read my paper, all I could do was rattle through the woods and hope something stuck.
But then a group from Yale's divinity school made their presentation, and those damn lights didn't seem so bad anymore. They took the old improv game "lines from a hat," and performed it for the assembly. But instead of simply having the audience toss random lines into the hat, they had them write down a concern, problem, worry, or other issue with the conference itself. They then performed it and, though mine wasn't one used, the very feel of the room was different. Schoedinger's kittens had curled themselves up in every lap and purred contentedly.
I tell this story because it's an excellent example of what the dramatic arts can do FOR it's audience. This improvisation exercise formed what was, in essence, an anxiety exorcism. My Shirime vanished like smoke on the wind in the face of this powerful community experience. It wasn't great drama, but what it might've lacked in craftsmanship it definitely made up for in audience impact.
This story came to mind recently when I was reading Polly Carl's Howlround article "Beauty and the Decline of the Professional." She asks, essentially, "Has the theatre's generally closed system and village-like atmosphere distanced us from our audience?" Have we as a discipline lost sight of what originally kept us in business? My experience with the "exorcism" reminded me about what we could really accomplish with just a few basic tools. Had I been forgetting that in my quest for artistic accolade?
I don't want to say yes, but I get a sneaking suspicion that if I turn around, an affirmative will be staring at me like a great big Shirime eye.