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Pop Culture References on Stage

I fully support a good pop culture reference; they play an integral role in how I communicate with the world. As human beings, we’re hard wired to look for patterns,to find the reoccurring images and ideas to make sense of the world around us. This not only applies to figuring out why the sun rises and sets, why the seasons change, but how we fit ourselves into that equation; am I a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or a Charlotte?

Okay, so I’m being a little flippant. But, there’s some truth in that. We reference popular culture to define ourselves amongst our contemporaries, to lay a claim to the experiences expressed in the media of the time as a shorthand for connecting with others. We use them to stake out our cultural residency, to show others what resonates with us in the past and present.

When writing for contemporary audiences, the use of pop culture references in our storytelling can help our audiences to contextualize our characters and their experiences. In Annie Baker’s The Flick, the character’s opinions on popular movies play a vital role in their characterization. Sam, Avery and Rose argue about whether or not there has been a good movie made in the last 10 years;2002-2012. The movies they choose to argue for show us who they are, and what they consider important. You can fairly make some assumptions about a person based on their reaction to Quentin Tarantion’s Pulp Fiction.  

In my own writing, I’ve found that I cling to my references, not only as a way to show how my characters fit in to the world around them, but to say something about how fit in to the bigger conversation.

Add time to this equation and things get complicated.

If a play is filled with references that speak specifically to one audience, what happens when we change the audience? The specific, cultural references can have the opposite effect on the audience; they can alienate and confuse instead of clarifying and connecting. I have come across this problem many times when grappling with text taken out of its original context into the 21st century.

When performing Prometheus Bound in 2016, how do we deal with our audience’s lack of knowledge of Greek mythology? How do we reconcile performing pages of text anchored in the assumption that the audience has thorough background understanding on the subject matter? When cutting a Shakespeare text for contemporary theatre-goers, should we keep the references that only the scholars in the audience will understand? Of course, it is assumed that the actor/director/dramaturg will do their homework and know exactly what they’re talking about even if it goes right over the audience’s head. What’s the point of having an actor tell a 1590s joke to 2010s audience? Do we smile and pat ourselves on the back, saying it would’ve killed with Elizabethan theater-goers? The question I’m asking is, is it worth it to insist on making these references that no longer provide the connections they once did.

I have just begun rehearsals on Wendy Wasserstein’s tribute to her Mount Holyoke undergrad experience, Uncommon Women and Others, set in the years 1978, and the college school year six years earlier, and even with a much smaller distance travelled from the original production than Aeschylus or Shakespeare, I’ve come across the same problems. The references to popular music, movies, philosophers, actors, etc. are numerous and vital to understanding the world of the play. As an ensemble, we have already begun to research not only the specific references, but to fill in the blanks for ourselves on how those references fit into our character’s place in their time. Its been illuminating and informative so far and I hope to go even further. But then I think about the original production of this play, and I think about the energy in the room that exists when a play is written and performed for a specific moment in time, by and for people who are currently living it. Even if we study hard and know exactly what we’re saying, I don’t expect our audience to. No matter how well we know what we’re saying, the references don’t do the same thing removed from their time.

So, I guess what I’m struggling with now is whether or not it serves a writer to avoid specific contemporary references. Should all plays strive to be timeless? Or should all plays only be produced for the audience they were originally written for? Both, neither, all of the above? The answer, or, I think, the beginning of the answer, lies in a couple more questions: Why are we revisiting this play now? What is different now and how does that change the story? What about this play informs our current moment?

The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks says “the plays should have the half life of plutonium.” For those of you who weren’t paying attention in high school chemistry, the half-life of a substance is how long it takes that substance to decay to half its original value, and plutonium, according to my google search, has a half life of 24, 100 years. I’m sure the residents of the Moon in the year 25, 700 will still be talking about Hamlet.

Some articles I’ve been reading while trying to figure this out:

Should Fiction Be Timeless? – Electric Lit
Guante: The Psychology of Pop-Culture References


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