We live in a polarized society where just about everything is right or wrong, black or white, either/or, and rarely both/and. Perhaps this is some of the starting point of the discussion about the Amity High School Theatre Department's production of Sweeney Todd. It is violence ladened entertainment, or it is art. Even when talking about art, we find this dichotomy, art for art sake versus art as a means of societal change.
Last night, at the Amity Board of Education, I suggested a middle ground. Can we look at Sweeney Todd as both art for art sake, and art capable of bringing about positive societal change? Can art contain distasteful violence and be redeeming at the same time? If we are willing to step outside of our preconceived assumptions, it just might be possible.
For me, this relates back the whole idea of indirect lessons. Kids learn football for football's sake, yet at the same time, they are learning about teamwork. There's a lot of teamwork you learn when you are in a musical. Yet there's even more. There is a certain amount of emotional intelligence and empathy that can be indirectly learned by the cast and the audience a like. There can be catharsis and redemption even in a play about revenge.
Amity has a great tradition of theatre, yet one thing that I've not been able to find around that has been groups gathering to share with one another what they have experienced and learned from attending the productions.
The dust up around the production of Sweeney Todd appears to be offering an opportunity to fill this need. Over in a discussion on the Orange Patch, The Rev. Ann Ritonia wrote,
"a community discussion on violence is a wonderful idea. All are invited to attend a continuation of a community dialogue on April 23rd at St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church sponsored by the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship. Prevention of Violence in our Culture: The Next Steps will begin at 7 pm and childcare will be provided. The public is welcome and Middle and High School Students are most welcome to participate in the discussion."
I hope people will attend Sweeney Todd. I hope they will then join the discussion at St. Barbara's Church. Let's celebrate and share art for art's sake that brings about positive social change.
This evening, I attended the Amity Board of Education meeting, where the public comment ended up being about the theatre department's upcoming production of "Sweeney Todd". I decided to go after I saw an announcement in the Patch, Violence Continues at Amity High School.
It was an unfortunate headline for an unfortunate announcement. The violence continuing at the high school is in the form of the musical, "Sweeney Todd". One high school student commented that the only violence at the school is freshmen during the first part of the school year, and that most of the time, Amity High School is a pretty mellow place.
The announcement resulted in an article in the Patch, "Parents Plannning [sic] to Protest at Amity BOE Meeting". It appeared in both the Bethwood Patch and the Orange Patch. Between the two articles and the announcement, there have been around 40 comments on the topic. It was also picked up in the New York Times.
Many of the comments talked about those opposing the production as "small-minded protesters [who] should be ashamed of themselves" and who "should get a grip on reality". Yet I think this misrepresents what is going on.
The first person to speak talked about an inter-faith coalition that was concerned about violence in society, and particularly as it exists in the media. She raised concerns about the violence in the musical and if it was teaching the sort of lessons we want to teach our youth. Others spoke about the musical in terms of art.
I spoke about how, perhaps if we think seriously, the two positions aren't as far apart as people would like to imagine. Art is a powerful way for people to deal with trauma, with the evil that is in the world. It provides an opportunity for people to discuss violence and the sort of society that we want to be part of.
I encouraged everyone to attend the musical, and then to gather with friends to discuss it and broader topics of violence in society. Afterwards, I encouraged the husband of the first speaker to attend, and to distribute leaflets inviting other theatre goers to an open discussion on a later date about violence in society and how art, and the musical addresses this problem. We shall see if anyone takes me up on this.
After I spoke, Howard Sherman echoed some of the same themes, reflecting on Sondheim's words, "Art isn't easy". Art isn't easy. Confronting evil and violence in our world isn't easy. Teaching our children isn't easy. But all of it can come together to help make the world a better place.
So, please come see Sweeney Todd, and then engage in discussions about the music with your friends and neighbors. Join in a broader discussion about how we can make our community a better place.
(This blog post has also been submitted to The Patch)
Yesterday, I stumbled across an interesting article, A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information. It goes into detail about how a sensor was connected to one rat's brain, and the experiences were transmitted, over the internet, to another rat who learned from the experiences of the first rat.
My science fiction enthusiastic brain went wild thinking about the possibilities. While the starting point is with sensorimotor information, I wondered what else could be transmitted. While the starting point was rats, I wondered what could be done with humans, or even, interspecies communications. What would it be like to experience the sensorimotor feelings of a horse galloping? Could this information be stored and played at a later time, perhaps as an educational tool? Could I become a better pianist or guitarist by playing back sensorimotor recordings of great performers? Could this be added to albums, so I could not only listen to a great performance, but experience the sensory feelings of the performer during the performance?
And what about the use in dealing with conditions like Parkinson's disease or Essential Tremors: Could a researcher gain insight by playing back the sensorimotor recording of a person with these conditions? Could playing back the sensorimotor recordings of healthy people provide some sort of therapy for people with these conditions?
All of this, of course, is precursor to The Borg. What happens as people become more connected to a collective mind? The borg is portrayed negatively in terms of force assimilation, yet our society has always been based on collective experiences and action. The struggle between individual experience and collective experience is an age old struggle.
Last night, I went to see The Indigo Girls in concert in Northampton with my daughter who started her college career in Virginia. It was striking to think about the collective experience of young women around Northampton and how it compared with the collective experience of some of my daughter's classmates from the south. I wondered how many of my daughter's classmates sought to flee their southern collectives, not for more individuality, per se, but to join a collective that was more tolerant, more embracing of their individual experiences.
I remember, many years ago, gathering around a campfire, to sing songs. Singing around campfires is one of the earliest ways in which experiences were shared, in which the collective spread its common ideas. Yet even two decades ago, around the campfire, different modes of collective engagement were creeping in. Many of the songs we knew, we had learned on the radio, and not around previous campfires. The campfire itself, was most likely started using the remains of another way of sharing collective information, used newspapers. We shared our experiences from around the campfire when we returned to our homes and spoke with friends.
Last night, the individuals who had this shared experience had gained collective information other ways. They had listened to music online, perhaps sharing it online. The newspapers were largely replaced by sharing of news online. Perhaps the most striking change was the way the collective experience of the concert was shared. During the concert, people texted their friends. They called friends from their cellphones so their friends could listen in, or to leave a brief recording of the experience on their friends voicemail. Photographs and videos were taken, and I imagine, shared via social media.
As far as I know, no one had implements allowing them to have the same sensorimotor experiences as Amy Ray or Emily Saliers, yet this omission did not seem to lesson the very strong bond between the audience and the performers.
Progress marches onward and some day, perhaps, we will look back at how we have shared common experiences via pictures, sound recordings or the written word, as being as quaint as the gathering around the campfire many generations before. Yet we would do well to remember the words of John Donne, "No man is an island" and that each one of us should say, "For I am involved in mankind".
I sit and try to write, but start sneezing. I've got a list of things to write about, but I'm aching from some sort of virus exacerbated by too much shoveling after the great storm. I've tried to rest as much as possible, but I have a restless mind and have been thinking about a lot of different things. One is the 1928 silent movie, Street Angel.
The other day someone tweeted about a massive open online course, The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color. I signed up, watched the first two lectures and then started watching the first movie.
When I have more time, I'll weave this into a broader story about creative problem solving, tying in McLuhan and Papert. At another time, I'll reflect more on what we can learn about storytelling today by looking at early films. At another time, I won't be struggling to stay awake and write.
So, let me reflect, for a few moments on Street Angel itself. We start off with a daughter committing a crime to get medicine for her dying mother. Today, we have a safety net, but it isn't in the best shape, and I can imagine a young Latina born in Connecticut in a similar circumstance trying to get medication for her ailing undocumented mother.
Angelica, in Street Angel, becomes a fugitive, and their is no forgiveness for those who have broken the law. Again, we see parallels to modern day America. Some people broke the law a couple decades ago, coming to this country illegally. But too many people cannot forgive them, cannot give them a path to citizenship because they broke a law twenty years ago. Right now, there is legislation being considered that would ban citizens of Connecticut who have been convicted of drug related crimes from ever getting public assistance. No chance, ever, for forgiveness. Yet these are probably the people that need it most, and perhaps where we could have the biggest impact, lifting a person out of a life of crime and a circle of poverty.
A twenty-first century Street Angel, Street Angel 21, wouldn't be a silent black and white movie. It might be a mashup of graffiti, pictures, video, and social media, trying to address problems that have been around for a century.
After college, I moved into an old cinnamon factory with a bunch of aspiring artists in New York City to be a writer. I was most interested in writing poems and short stories. I also had dreams of writing a great novel, but end up writing mostly computer programs.
Fast forward three decades, and I'm sitting in a nice house in suburbia writing blog posts on a laptop computer; a writing implement and genre that didn't exist back in the spice factory days. My online writing style continues to evolve. There have been times that I've written daily, sometimes, not very eloquently, in an effort to hone my craft. Other times, I've just been too busy to write regularly.
I'm starting off 2013 with a good string of blog post, but I've got a busy week ahead. I have to get non-blog writing done for other projects as well.
I'm also spending time trying to find things to inspire me and stimulate my creativity. Yesterday, I ended up on Sarah Kay's Ted talk, If I should have a daughter …
It got me thinking. Should I start hitting some of the poetry open mics? Should I start writing some more poetic blog posts to be read allowed, and then make a video of me reading them which I could share on YouTube? NPR has been doing an interesting series of having poets visit their news room and write poems about the experience and the day's news. Could I do a spoken word poetic news recap, perhaps drawing from other experiments in creative news, from the Daily Show to Autotune the news?
For politics, could I, a former, and perhaps future, political candidate, deliver spoken word poetic stump speeches?
I hope to give some of this a shot, perhaps even today, Epiphany, if I get the time.