Category: Theater


Adopting Medieval Tactics to Promote Modern Science

This is one of those ideas that came out of the blue while thinking about current events. It’s no secret to anyone reading this in 2018 that there is an alarming reduction in fact-based thinking and discussion. Some of this is due to the highly-charged emotional times we live in. Some of it is also a long, slow decline in emotional connection to science.

I remember reading old 50s magazines and comics years ago. The nuclear age had just begun and the Space Race would soon be on its way. There was this idea that the future would be all space ships and laser guns. In short the future was an adventure and science would pave the way. Today is much different, of course. People use computers, cars and airplanes, but routinely deny the existence of climate change as well. In the past science was magical, but still understood as a human invention to make life better. Today, it seems to have simply drifted into background noise.

I think a lot of this has to do with a lack of proper communication of scientific concepts to the average citizen. As I mentioned earlier, a lack of emotional connection. People seem to understand that science exists, but not that it is a man-made phenomenon that is accessible to the average person. As result, interest has waned, competing ideas are coming into the foreground and America finds itself fighting to get students interested in science so that we can compete with the rest of the world.

A Proposal on Communicating Science to Citizens

Although not entirely the same situation, we do see an ongoing lack of interest in art education. Art is seen as something kids do in school, but no real effort is made to bring artists in line with small business owners on the scale of social respect. In fact, a life of art tends to come across as a sure-fire way to basically be broke all the time. This is bizarre because artists, be they painters, actors or musicians, are basically skilled in emotional communication. They provide emotive experiences that are designed to move audiences towards an idea or state of being.

This ability has been exploited in the past very effectively in the Medieval period in Europe. On the secular side of history, bards were also employed to create poems and songs highlighting important people and events. This was important because while the elites were well educated, the masses were largely illiterate. Written texts would have done very little for spreading information. Religious organizations went even further. First, they spread by identifying the holidays for other religions and presenting their own competing holidays. This is why Easter is a Christian holiday despite originally being a pagan holiday. It’s also why Christmas is celebrated during the winter solstice despite Christ himself having been born in the summer.

Re-purposing the holidays was only part of the equation. Once the people had been assembled, indoctrination had to begin. This began with chants and hymns, which were easy to remember, but expanded over time to plays and pageants. The plays fell into three basic groups: morality plays, mystery plays, and passion play. Mystery plays covered the history as presented by the Bible. That is, the birth of the universe, its death and the intervening events. Morality plays were as their name implies and were generally diverse, as seen by the play Everyman and the medieval plays of Saint Nicholas. The Passion plays were focused on Jesus Christ in particular. These plays were short, easy to understand and, at least in the case of Everyman, highly metaphorical. They were meant for an audience that had not yet been prepared for complex ideas or discussions.

Adapting Ideas to Science

It seems both science and art complement each other well. Scientists are more interested in uncovering facts and expanding knowledge, and artists are more interested in moving the hearts and minds of people. It seems both could adapt the tactics developed in the Medieval age to promote each other in a symbiotic manner in the modern age.

The first step is to identify holidays that draw major public interest, such as Christmas or the 4th of July. Scientific organizations can then organize and promote pre-holiday festival and celebrations. These events would offer free music and theatre presentations. Taking a cue from Medieval plays, they would be short and easy to understand. Comedy is effective, as well. Both the music and the plays would focus on science in some manner. Think Jonathan Coulton’s Mandelbrot Set, as an example for music. In addition, the celebrations should be replete with demonstrations of science. These demonstrations would displays meant to “wow” the attendees. The goal isn’t so much to educate, but amaze. The music and plays themselves are the educational aspect in that they would present easy-to-digest introductions to ideas, people and so forth (again, think Mandelbrot Set, or 88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians.)

Scientific organizations could expand on this by creating in-house positions for theatre groups and individuals. These individuals would act as resident “bards”. Their job would be to create music, poetry and writings that introduce important figures or events, illustrate important ideas and methods and so on. This would be a kind of expansion of general PR duties into the field of edutainment. In essence, someone from within the greater scientific organization would give some information on scientific advances, people or ideas and the bards and playwrights would compose something to present to masses. Imagine Friday nights at a college campus where there is a free concert by the Science building, or an ongoing tradition of lunchtime plays, all free watch.

This material would, ideally, be in the public domain. Since different organizations in different locations would each have their own set of theatre groups and bards, a great wealth of material would develop to share and adapt. These would be composed of plays, poems, stories, parables and so forth. Collections could be made and offered for free or a small price to add funds to the productions. One might also argue for a scientific “bible” which would contain various parables, lessons and stories of meant to draw the reader in. Theoretically, if this was done on a large enough scale, a large enough population of people would associate science with some positive emotion. The emotional connection would build and, hopefully, foster an ongoing interest and trust in science.

Appealing to the Non-Masses

There’s another idea that is somewhat complementary, if also somewhat cynical. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Masques were all the rage. These were a specific form of theatre that merged together spoken theatre, song and dance. They were specifically made for a particular party event and even included attendees in their performance. Often, they glorified the host of the event and the attendees. Masque’s were the must-go events of their day and were exclusively the domain of those in favor with the court.

Much has been made, both publically and among the tech community, of the incredible position of the scions of Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos, as of this writing, is the wealthiest man in the world and has aspirations of being the first man on Mars. That is to say, achieving a goal that involves spending billions of dollars with no guarantee of return. Silicon Valley CEOs are phenomenally wealthy and, possibly, very self-satisfied with their success. They are also very interested in continuing their dominance in technology, which itself is a product of scientific research. Interested science and technology organizations could expand on the celebrations mentioned earlier to create exclusive name-only events for these privileged few. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the benefits of wealth?

Like the masques of old, these events would involve productions that glorify the attendees and hosts before transforming into a larger party. In addition, there would be more of the aforementioned scientific spectacles. Something to amaze, but also a possible venue for inspiring some form of argument for funding. Think of it overall as a celebration of successful people. The production feeds into the collective ego of those attending and in turn makes them amenable to arguments for funding this project or that supporting that legislative proposal. Parties are a great way to network and fundraise.

Summary

The current distrust of science and lack of scientific interest can be attributed, at least in part, to the lack of ability to emotionally connect to science, or at least associate science with some positive state. By looking to the past we can observe that there were problems with drawing people to a particular message or idea. Using the tactics of art, in the form of bards, plays and masques, we can see how secular and religious organizations promoted themselves to the masses and the elites. This allowed them to spread messages, secure support and otherwise fulfill their goals. These same tactics can be used to promote modern science and, one hopes, bring scientific literarcy and trust back into the public sphere where it belongs.

Thoughts on Shakespeare for Actors

Introduction

Years ago I was friends with an aspiring actor, one of many actors and pseudo-actors that try to make it in the film industry. He had started out as a software developer on the East Coast before having some kind of epiphany (or nervous breakdown) and realizing his purpose in life was to act. Naturally, discussions eventually turned to Shakespeare. I was expecting him to wax poetic on the Bard, but surprisingly, he dismissed Shakespeare entirely. In his mind, Shakespeare just was not relevant to modern society.

I probably should not have been surprised. Going through college, I myself was taught that Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers in English literature, but not much more beyond that. He was great because everyone said he was great. A sort of Elizabethan Kim Kardashian, as it were. It wasn’t until I found a video online of a speech by Ben Crystal, a noted Shakespearean actor, that I was able to really put the problem into words. Simply put, Shakespeare is taught in an incompetent manner. This essay, then, would be my response to that aspiring actor from years ago.

Research and Informed Interpretation

The reason Shakespeare is important for actors is because it exercises critical skills that actors should have in terms of research, analysis and presentation. Because of the manner in which Shakespeare’s works are taught, read rather than acted and discussed rather than witnessed, the works themselves come off a exceptionally dry. They appear to have no relation to the issues of modern life. As Ben Crystal makes clear, the genius in Shakespeare was in his storytelling abilities, not as some static poet (for the purposes of this essay, I’m excluding his sonnets and other poetic works).

Shakespeare and Class in His Theatre

Shakespeare is often taught as if he existed in some vacuum, but he did not. In fact, he had to appeal to two opposite classes of people simultaneously. I recall watching a documentary years ago that focused on designers and their thoughts on design. One designer mentioned that he liked to place customers for a product on a spectrum. By solving design issues for each end of the spectrum, he is basically assured that everyone in the middle of the spectrum will be taken care of as well. This is not unlike the problem Shakespeare himself had with his audience.

In Shakespeare’s day, the very poor were situated in front of the stage with the very wealthy surround everyone in privileged seats. If Shakespeare did not appeal to the interests of the wealthy, the theatre would not make money. If the he likewise did not appeal to the interests of the poor, they might disrupt the play, storm the stage or otherwise cause chaos. This would drive away the wealthy and give the theatre company a bad reputation.

Appealing to both ends of the spectrum is no mean task. The wealthy were well educated and expected high-minded language and themes of greatness. The poor were often illiterate and preferred bawdy jokes to monologues on the meaning of life. Both classes enjoyed poking fun at each other. This combined with Shakespeare’s ability to analyse and recreate human nature allowed him to balance these interests. Thus, we read Hamlet contemplating mortality with Yorick’s skull just before two illiterate gravediggers discuss how easily justice and salvation is bought for the rich while the poor are forced to live by the rules. Both classes can laugh at Dogberry, the night constable in Much Ado About Nothing. He’s a low-class character who tries constantly to appear higher than he actually is, thus making a fool of himself to both sides.

The above, of course, is a broad outline. For any particular play, any good actor should be doing research on the character, the character’s class and how the character is portrayed in relation to that class. Further, research should be done on how the character relates to that character’s self, the immediate social circle and the world at large. This informs the nature of the character and the potential experience for the audience.

Shakespeare and Acting Notes

The necessary research goes beyond the character in Shakespeare’s plays. For one thing, Shakespeare rarely wrote stage directions. This may be because of two important points regarding Shakespeare. First, he was constantly writing, being a very in-demand playwright and second, he worked with the same general group of people thoughout his career. This has given rise to the theory that he didn’t have time to write out stage directions, but rather placed them in the dialogue itself. For example, every “Oh” in Shakespeare would denote a point where the actor would be expected to dramatically emote.

For a modern actor to take advantage of this would require a lot of research into Shakespeare’s writing style, literary and dramatic trends of the day and so forth. Just reading (or speaking) the words isn’t enough. Thought has to be put into why particular words keep showing up or why Shakespeare wanted actors to speak certain words at certain times. Without doing this, the language falls flat.

Shakespeare and Modern English

Shakespeare spoke and wrote in what we now call Early Modern English. It is true that we can understand most of what Shakespeare wrote, but the use of the word “Early” is no joke. The reason Shakespeare was able to add so many words and phrases into the English language was because Modern English was only just being formed. There was a lot of room for defining and redefining words. As a result, many times Shakespeare will write something that made total sense to his time but is completely lost on modern audiences.

One example is in Hamlet. When Hamlet is confronted by King Claudius about the killing of Polonius, Hamlet mentions “a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him”. What modern audiences will miss is that Hamlet is making a pun on an event called The Diet of Worms which is a conference called by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521. Because there’s no reason modern audiences will understand this at all, the actor must find a way to relate the basic point while gliding over words that might distract and confuse from that point. This calls for imaginative adaptation from the actor, which is a critical skill in general. Needless to say, Shakespeare’s texts provide ample opportunity for this sort of tactic.

Summary

Shakespeare appears distant to modern audiences because of inadequate teaching methods. This has led many, including actors, to feel that Shakespeare is simply not part of their world and a relic of the past. Shakespeare, in fact, is a critical proving ground for actors because the effective portrayal of Shakespeare requires critical skills that serve actors well in any role from any author. An example would be researching the dynamic of the audience that Shakespeare was writing for. This is especially important with regards to class divisions.

Research must also go into how Shakespeare related information in his plays to the actors and how trends in his text reveal how he felt the actors should portray a role. Finally, a dramatic nimbleness must be displayed to enable audiences to understand the basic point of a text while glossing over material that is no longer accessible to modern viewers. All of these create a proving ground for actors and part of the set of reasons that all serious actors should have a high regard for Shakespeare’s works.

It’s too bad I didn’t think to come up with all this so many years ago when I actually having these discussions. Ah, well.

The Alone Experience: Being Alone has never been so captivating.

The Alone Mask

The Alone Experience, a Halloween maze in it’s second year, breaks the haunted house mold with an inventive, personal, psychological horror theme. Combined with the optional treasure hunt and the complementary drink at the end of the run, the Alone Experience provides excellent enjoyment for the price. There are still a few kinks to work out, but for anyone looking for something new, the Experience is well worth checking out.

I found out about The Alone Experience through an article on LAist, titled The Most Beautifully Constructed Haunted House in Los Angeles. What intrigued me was not only the description of the attraction, but also the optional treasure hunt that could be had before you actually go to The Alone Experience itself. This is something I had not seen before in more conventional haunts and I was eager to see what happened.

The Seek and Hunt

Enola PamphletThe first stop on the hunt (or what I like to call the “Seek and Hunt” since there is no actual treasure) was a small store at the junction of Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s an artsy vintage shop with no indication that it is connected in any way with Alone. When I asked about the mysterious “Enola Foundation“, however, I was given a pamphlet along with a number to call.

Calling the number gave me a recorded message that then set me to a nearby library. Unfortunately, the library had already closed for the evening. I literally walked around the premises for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes before giving up and contacting someone at Alone to ask for help. Fortunately I was put on the right path in a few minutes, but this did put a slight damper on my adventure. Right up until the hint came, I was convinced that the library didn’t need to be open for me to get the next clue. It would have required me to take off from work early to get there before the library closed and that didn’t seem fair.

Eventually I was led to a tavern which seemed empty for a Halloween night. The woman behind the bar was dressed as a nun and asked me what she could get for me. If you ever find your way to this tavern, I ordered a Kona Longboard, which wasn’t too bad. I also gave her a secret password. She was good; I didn’t see any hint of recognition in her face as she got me the drink. I was seriously wondering if I had come to the wrong place. When I pulled out my wallet to pay for the drink, I could feel her lean in close. I looked up and saw her staring at me right in the eyes with a devilish grin while tapping the counter to the rhythm of “Feed My Frankenstein“, which was blaring over the radio. After receiving my money, she walked away as if nothing had happened. Underneath the napkin was a token with a triangle etched in it-the symbol of The Alone Experience. My “Seek and Hunt” adventure was over.

I admit I was a little disappointed that it was over. I actually looked around the bar to see if there was another clue somewhere, but the token was the final prize for my adventure. I finished my drink, left a tip and headed to main event.

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The Alone Experience

The Alone Experience PostcardThe Alone Experience is situated in the Fashion District of the city. That sounds more upscale than it actually is. As I drove by, there were tents all along the sidewalk where homeless people slept. At least the people not forced to stand under doorways or sleep out in the open. There was even a half-crazy man in a dingy suit, wandering up and down the sidewalk as I drove by the attraction. This definitely put me on edge for my general safety in the area.

All is not as it seems, however. As an oblique hint, let’s just say the mask of reality is pulled off when your own mask is put on. Leave it at that. Oh, and your mask gets painted as well. It’s fun.

Guests arriving to The Alone Experience wait in a small area in an alleyway. People in very clean white medical coats take their name and make them sign a waiver stating that they can be touched, will get wet and may get dirty. Then, guests are called up in groups of five and led to a loading dock. A dilapidated elevator slowly lowers and the Experience is on. And ho boy, is it on…

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How The Experience Worked

It would be unfair to relate what actually happened in the Experience, but it is worth noting how it was put together. The creators of The Alone Experience were very clever and the attraction did a great deal with very little. Much of the Experience involved darkened hallways, crawlspaces and being spontaneously covered in hoods and led around. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like much, but the attraction specialized in a more cerebral psychological scare than jump-outs or fancy effects. Also, the multiple websites created for the attraction, phone numbers with professional voicemail greetings, pamphlets and other accessories give the sense that the Experience is larger and more sophisticated than it actually is. It’s smoke and mirrors on a larger scale.

The concept behind the Experience is ultimately about trying to unnerve and disorient, forcing the guests to almost scare themselves via blinding lights, constant droning through hidden speakers and an endless amount of touching, pushing, pulling and directing from seen and unseen forces. While not truly terrifying, The Alone Experience is aptly named. It’s an experience that challenges guests by, in a way, forcing them to haunt themselves.

The Unicorn

The unicorn scene was probably the most interesting decision of the Experience. With all other sections of the Experience being focused on disturbing guests, the unicorn scene was the exact opposite. I had read about this moment, but wasn’t quite sure what I would find. I would say, however, that the moment was something of a vacation from the rest of the attraction. Not everyone will realize that this isn’t supposed to be a scary moment, but those that do will find some bright silly fun before being sent off to finish the rest of the story. I can’t speak for the creators of The Alone Experience, but I think that this scene was a chance to take a quick break before continuing on. In any event, I couldn’t help having a fun time with the unicorn, right up until someone ripped open the door to the dance room and yanked me on my way.

When The Experience Ends

At the end of the run, guests end up in a lounge where a bartender hands over a complementary drink. When I arrived there, I found a couple from my group and immediately began comparing notes. The boyfriend was nearly ejected for poking and punching anyone and everything around him. Someone actually told him if he didn’t calm down he would be ejected from the site. His girlfriend was wildly different and was terrified of absolutely everything. It seems that the Experience was customized on a per-guest basis. The girlfriend was treated in ways that didn’t come close to what I went through. She had ribbons tied on her and was even held by the throat and interrogated. This never happened to me. It seems you get out of it what you put into it (so to speak). Following this discussion, I headed out into the night to continue my Halloween adventures.

Conclusion

The Alone Experience is wide shift from the standard Halloween fare. How people feel about it will depend on what people are like prior to entering. I went through a very cerebral journey with very few conventional scares. Others were terrified left and right. Online, some reported boredom. Yet, despite this, it is one of the most inventive Halloween attractions I’ve been to in a while. Combined with the treasure hunt from earlier, and I have to say The Alone Experience was a bargain for what I got.

Halloween has come and gone, but give if you’re looking for something different, be sure to give it a try next October. And remember… Alone Loves You. Breathe.

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