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Art Against Apathy

Marc Chagall, The Grand Parade

I love making connections—between people, places, and especially, ideas.  This weekend, I did just that.  On Friday night, I hopped in a car and made my way to Hartford, CT to see a production of Double Edge Theatre’s The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) at Trinity College.  I had seen a rehearsal of this piece back in January, sitting against the wall of the barn (Double Edge’s performance space at the Farm Center in Ashfield, MA) before the company went on tour last February.  Not only has the show grown and strengthened exponentially since then, but seeing it in front of me, on a stage was a completely different experience than the one I’d previously had, essentially sitting on the stage.

With The Grand Parade, director and founder Stacy Klein aimed to create a “mythology of the 20th Century,” largely inspired by Russian painter, Marc Chagall, as well as each of the 6 cast members’ own experience with history.  The Grand Parade explores “a dream-like rush of juxtapositions that include the ecstasy of landing on the moon, the frenzy of war, the skilled escapes of Houdini, the atomic bomb, Kennedy’s assassination, and Hitler’s brutalization of Europe among others.”  Throughout the piece, the actors flew, danced, and balanced, as the 20th Century happened around them.

Photo by Maria Baranova. The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century), Double Edge Theatre, 2012

While I watched, captivated, one image in particular stuck out to me.  After decades of war and atrocity, and as the production approached more modern times, one of the actors sat in front of a TV, playing a video game.  As normal of an image as this is, especially in today’s world, I was struck by a feeling of discomfort that I couldn’t immediately identify.  After a few moments, I realized what that feeling was.  Up to that moment, I had seen some of the most horrific events of the recent past brought to life before my eyes, leading up to the creation of something artificial, distracting, and mind numbing.  The video game was a metaphorical cushion to soften the blow of a history thick with suffering and cruelty.

I began reflecting on my own life, clocking just how much time I spend with my head angled down at a screen, fingers scrolling, or typing away while the rest of my body stays stationary.  I cannot deny the obvious perks of our modern technology, but combine that with living in a society that values convenience and equates happy with good, and we’ve got a problem.  At a certain point, we begin to do ourselves a disservice.

Two days after I saw The Grand Parade, I went to the reading of a play written by my good friend and fellow dramaturgy student, Ben Ducoff.  His play, The Whitmores, is about an eccentric couple living in a posh neighborhood development, the kind where I imagine all the houses to be cookie cutter replicas of each other, in an eerie way.  In the play, the couple plots with the help of their caterer, to murder the president of their neighborhood association and her husband, so that they might hang wind chimes in their yard.

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Is this realistic?  Absolutely not.  However, the absurdity of the play highlighted something for me about a part of this country I’m very familiar with growing up in suburban America.  Though unrealistic, the couple in this play represents thousands of real people, wanting to remove themselves from the aspects of society they find displeasing, and live in a perfectly controlled environment void of negative stimulus.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just the rich people in creepily perfect neighborhoods 10 miles outside of town who do this—it’s all of us, at some point or another.  During the talkback after the reading, one of the actors (Michael John Ciszweski: friend, dramaturgy student, fantastic human being), made a comment that he wished he could come home after an intense day of classes and watch TV.  Sure, a release of tension is great and mostly necessary for our overall health, but what if we dealt with it in a different way that did not involve deactivating our bodies, and gazing mindlessly at some flashing lights coming from a box?

In our society, we are becoming too comfortable.  We are losing touch with our bodies, the people around us, and the rest of the world.  Everything we watch on TV or read on the Internet is pushing us further from the source, numbing the real blow of the events we see and hear about.  Convenience is taking over; apathy is spreading.

Maybe, if we as a society were more in touch with ourselves, we would feel a stronger sense of collective compassion and empathy.  Instead of sharing a sad story on Facebook, we might be inclined to take real world action to serve a cause we truthfully care about, not just clicking a mouse and typing a sad face to show 700 of our “friends” how sensitive we are…

Which brings me back to theatre.  We cannot literally re-create history, but what we can do is actualize stories that are important—that really mean something—and present them to a live audience.  Hopefully, art can fill in the gaps the rest of society has created.

So, while The Grand Parade was a beautiful and intricate show three years in the making, and The Whitmores has yet to take a stage, both pieces effectively moved me to this point.And to my fellow artists and theatre makers, I say:

This is a beginning!

Think of what we can do!

The time to fight apathy with art is now!

Or, hey, we can just sit back and turn into jello, your choice.

Photo by Maria Baranova. The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) rehearsals, Double Edge Theatre 2012

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