On a recent evening in Santa Monica I saw Bo Burnham’s new film “Eighth Grade.” I walked out of the cinema in a daze and remained haunted by it for quite some time afterwards. In the film, a young girl struggles to get along with her peers. She and her friends are glued to their phones and seemingly addicted to social media. She is desperate to be accepted and, although isolated in her personal life and at school, she sends out messages of optimism and motivation to the world via her vlogs and Instagram.
Every once in a while, I encounter a work of art that feels so true to our current cultural moment that I become somewhat catatonic after the experience. “Eighth Grade” had such an impact upon me because it captured the culture of flighty digital dependency that I recognize as the base line, the underbelly, of our current daily lives. In 2004 the Alexander Payne film “Sideways” also had that impact on me. It depicted a certain North American wasteland of Styrofoam cups, cheap motels, rock-bottom depression and spiritual isolation. It felt again as though the secret underbelly of our culture was revealed with an eerie clarity.
The digital age is a slippery one. The generation portrayed in “Eighth Grade” was raised from birth on electronic devices, receiving an in-depth intensive training in distraction. But constant diversion is not only the realm of thirteen-year-olds. I too am vulnerable. It is so easy for me to slide down the all too pervasive slopes of technology into a well of constant distraction and endless desperation for diversion. It seems that when I am online I am neither present in the space that my body occupies nor am I fully engaged with what I am looking at or listening to. Where am I then? Who am I there?
One of the reasons that I value being a theater director is because the nature of the engagement in rehearsal requires me to hold still longer and to concentrate in bigger chunks than I do in my daily life. I wonder if, without the discipline of theater making, I would simply flit around, an aimless butterfly, alighting and taking off, alighting and taking off again, never satisfied, never settled. But by the nature of the sustained engagement of a rehearsal, I cannot run away. I am required to linger longer. In my role as a director I must develop stick-with-it-ness with regards to the unfolding events.
Making art requires skill, experience and effort. But it also entails patience and listening and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to hold your seat. Maintaining physical and mental attention over time is the key ingredient. Holding your seat means staying put, not running away. It means not letting events hijack emotions and not throwing in the towel when things get uncomfortable. It means neither repressing your feelings nor responding reactively. Holding your seat requires the discipline to not be distracted, to trust in the process and to cultivate enough space and time for the alchemy of innovation to occur.
The playwright Chuck Mee proposed that a theater director is the person who can endure what is intolerable longer than anyone else in the room. His notion reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to writers: “Try to imagine that you are holding two concepts that are opposite to each other in each hand without going crazy.”
In the cultural environment that we currently inhabit, depicted so effectively in “Eighth Grade,” we seem to be losing our ability to hold our seats in our daily lives. Flitting around from one site to the next, we are in danger of becoming unfocused and flighty. We are unable to concentrate over an unbroken period of time or even sustain emotional engagement. The art of holding one’s seat is an increasingly critical skill because, ultimately, we become what we pay attention to. Over the years, the theater provided for me an environment in which to practice holding my seat. But I was also fortunate to learn the skill through other avenues.
During much of my adolescence and into my teen years, I was passionate about horses. My Navy family understood and accepted my obsession, allowing me to attend horse camp every summer until I was 14 years old. At 15, I was hired to teach riding and I rode professionally for various stables, sometimes competing in judged exhibitions at horse shows. I also had the opportunity to train, or “break,” the stable’s two-year old horses. Two years is the age at which most horses are ready to hold a bit, carry a saddle and learn to be ridden. Breaking a colt is not an easy process for horse or rider. The horse is skittish and the rider must exercise tremendous patience and firmness and all the while, hold her seat.
In riding, holding your seat is imperative. The successful rider creates an envelope, a physical connection with the horse’s body and mind, sensing how to relax and follow, allowing the body to harmonize with the horse’s movement so as not to create a feeling of separation. The goal is not to impose control over the horse but rather to create empathy and compassion rolled into one. The rider figures out how to influence the horse without losing harmony or interfering with the horse’s body. Eventually, in training these young horses, I learned to relax and allow my mind and body to harmonize with the horse so as not to block its movement.
In my early twenties I began a life-long study of the Chinese martial art T’ai Chi Chu’an. In the continuing process of training to hold my seat, I learned from the practice of T’ai Chi Chu’an and Taoism that rather than imposing my will on a situation, I can tune in and flow with what is already happening. I had several great teachers, including Jean Kwok in New York City and Sifu Lee Shiu Pak, the master teacher with whom I studied in Montreal, Canada. Master Lee, who moved to Canada from his native China and spoke a very innovative but simple English, often advised his students, “to do the not to do,” a practice of active (conscious) non-action also known in Taoist philosophy as wu-wei, which trains one to maintain calm and poise through life’s ups and downs. Through my study of T’ai Chi Chu’an, I learned to run directly at whatever is happening, hold it tight, dance with it and let it go, all at the same time. I learned to stay put in order to understand (stand under) what I am encountering. Both are methods of holding my seat.
In addition to the solo form, the study of T’ai Chi Chu’an includes a practice known as “push hands,” which improves one’s ability to maintain balance while under attack. Push hands is a two-person training that could be considered a kind of sparring, but in fact the practice is a deceptively complex expression of holding one’s seat. In addition to timing and coordination, training with a partner allows one to develop ting jing (listening power), the sensitivity to feel the direction and strength of an opponent’s intension. The practice undoes the natural instinct to resist force with force, developing the ability to act in response without creating resistance, to yield to force and redirect it. While maintaining my balance, I sense and redirect my sparing partner’s center of gravity and exploit it.
My youthful experiences with horses and then my study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan have been great resources for me, not only in my work as a theater director, but also in negotiating life’s shifting challenges. These days, the biggest challenge for me is the physical toll of the hyper mediated environment. Spreading my focus too widely, whether on social media or drifting around the Internet or the temptation of pushing the Amazon buy-now button, is an expression of not holding my seat. In a world of constant distraction, exhaustion can set in and that exhaustion also starts to feel normal. This fatigue is the cost of not holding your seat. Spreading out your focus, overloading your attention over a long period of time simply makes you tired.
Because our ever-increasing obsession with technology is driving us into further isolation from one another, I am happy to report that the theater now occupies a special and salubrious place in our culture. The theater does not exist without you and me, the audience. Attending a live performance creates a radical intersection in life by making the audience integral to the situation. You chose theater because it is one of the few extant activities for which you have to be present. The audience’s there-ness matters in a way that it does not in other mediated art forms.
We live in an era of simulacrum, where songs and paintings are copied and reproduced, almost infinitely; turning art into data. While technology and the Internet can reproduce sound, light, words and pictures over and over again, it cannot reproduce space and it cannot reproduce time or breath or ephemerality. The theater resists the tyranny of simulacrum. Digital media cannot reproduce the experience of being present in the theater and for that reason the theater is unique. And the theater does not happen without the presence of an audience.
The theater utilizes all of the main ways in which humans learn: visually, aurally and kinesthetically. It is simultaneously real and metaphorical. It is both emotionally removed and deeply empathic, fleeting and transient. You have to stay alert to the experience. You have to pay attention, live through the experience and then transform it with your imagination into something metaphorical. You matter because theater does not exist without you. This is not a common experience in the digital environment. In the theater, you are required to hold your seat by the sheer fact of sitting next to strangers, by the necessity of turning off your phone and screen, by not bothering other people, by listening, by having faith, by holding still and exercising empathic responsiveness, by opening your heart and mind, by thinking together and imagining together and laughing together. The mere act of going to the theater requires you to hold your seat. The engagement demands physical intentionality and it just may be transformative.