Last month, my father and I had the privilege of seeing a performance of Cornerstone Theater Company‘s latest production in their multi-year “Hunger Cycle” of plays: fellowship, a play for volunteers. In one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve ever attended, we were exposed to five unique perspectives and life stories, each with a different relationship to food and hunger. That same weekend, this time accompanied by my brother, I was lucky enough to catch a delightful performance of Pamela Sterling’s adaption of The Secret Garden, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, a professional Equity theatre for young audiences in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
At first glance, the two shows I saw that weekend had very little in common. One was an intimate and interactive theatrical piece addressing modern-day issues; the other, a more traditional theatre experience rooted in classic English literature. But a look at the shows’ audience survey data revealed how these productions were remarkably similar: both fellowship and The Secret Garden were highly effective in bridging audience members to life experiences different from their own.
These findings were consistent with my personal experiences with the plays. My time at fellowship made me confront my own relationship to food and how other people, including my parents and friends, might have profoundly different relationships to scarcity and plenty. The Secret Garden transported me to early 20th century Yorkshire, England, and encouraged me to ponder questions about class differences, privilege, and self-determination. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I realized how full my heart and mind were after these performances. The experiences impacted my father and brother as well, inspiring them to find new and creative ways to instill empathy and compassion in my nephews.
Art has the marvelous capacity to connect us to others. And in a time when much is being written on how to break out of our political bubbles and ultra-personalized newsfeeds, it is clear that the need for substantive social bridging is more crucial than ever. What might this look like for theatres and other arts organizations aiming to serve as these bridges? What would it take for the most progressive theatregoer to not only entertain conservative viewpoints, but to deeply understand them, and vice-versa? I would think there is a limit to which this is possible; for example, I personally can’t imagine ever appreciating a white supremacist point of view. Yet past experience tells me to never underestimate the power of art. Perhaps developing a keener understanding for how people come to develop certain worldviews might be a beginning.
Some arts organizations may be better situated than others to be our bridges to experiences and viewpoints that differ from our own. And some art-makers, like Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Yerbua Buena Center for the Arts, may see themselves in an entirely different but equally important role — not as a bridge to others with differing views, but as “a socket” or “battery” for creativity, freedom, and social justice. (I would love to explore this concept much more thoroughly in a future entry.) And still others may be somewhere else along this “bridge-battery” spectrum, or on a different axis entirely. In a time when we are simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever before, I think there is room and need for it all.