Nov 15, 2022

Blog #141 – November 2022

I grew up in a Navy family and almost every year we packed up and moved to another state, sometimes even to another country. The longest place that I lived before my father retired and the family settled for a while in Middletown, Rhode Island, was a 2 ½ year posting in Tokyo, Japan. I found myself repeatedly dumped into new schools where I did not know anyone, and in each new place I had to start all over again. And I did start all over again. But after a while, after so many violent jerks away from close friends who I had grown to love, I resisted getting too close to anyone. Deep down, I knew that we would be ripped apart again, and I did not want to feel those awful sensations of abandonment and loss.  The big bad world seemed to me impersonal, callous and at times even violent. Eventually I discovered an antidote to this dilemma. In each school I found that there was a place where, from time-to-time, groups of students and a few teachers gathered to make theatrical productions. And these environments provided an escape from the big bad world and an entry into an alternate one.

These experiences in the theater were intense and tremendously intra-personal; everyone worked together in order to create a special event, full of feeling, bravery, color, lightness, and love. After the show happened in front of a live audience, after it was over, we all went our separate ways. This pattern felt true to life as I understood it: short spurts of intensity and then detachment.  But I thrilled to the alternate worlds that we were able to create together inside the bubble of a play or musical. I rarely acted in these productions, rather I could be found offstage, pulling curtains or scenery up and down, running around looking for props, or doing whatever else needed to be done. Eventually I began to direct the plays. As an integral part of these alternate worlds, I felt that I contributed to their atmosphere, impact, and particular grace.

Every work of art is an entire world of its own, tucked within the wider scope of the world that we inhabit in our daily lives. Even within the context of high school plays, I quickly learned that the worlds created in a production could be little societies of mutuality and cooperation. The plays were structures in which nothing less than life could be put on display. My experiences with school plays taught me about the necessity to create attractive, compelling worlds within the larger sphere of daily life.

The worlds that artists construct are separate from, and yet also connected to, daily life. When an artist seems to be making something up, they are actually pulling, at least in part, from the storehouse of their own encounters in the real world. Their making is always remaking, and always in service of communication. By altering and rearranging the meanings of objects, patterns, words, movement, behavior, gesture, and so on, artists do nothing less than transform the world as we know it.

What is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our new selves first in a simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. Imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future. We use art to model new worlds so that we can see how we might feel about them.         

Brian Eno

World-making is a process of engagement with infinite possibility that endlessly expands, stimulates, and renews itself. Through art, we experience a connection between the real and the imagined. We can imagine other worlds into existence because we know that alternative worlds are possible, and they can challenge who we are, what we do and what we know. This act of world-making opens up realms of other possible perceptions, sensations, and even interpretations of life itself.

Each new book, each painting, each music composition or play or production is engaged in the process of world-making through the simultaneous appropriation and extension of existing conventions and assumptions. In the construction of a theatrical production, a world within a world, we are responsible for the creation of unique laws and systems of logic tailored to the specific universe that we are imagining into existence. The particular laws and the logic that we choose must be rigorous, and we are required to stick to them. It is possible to alter the laws of space and time, but they must be well-defined and readable. For example, in a particular production it might be plausible for characters to enter from under the floor rather than walking through doors.  Shifting perspectives, visible costume changes, or even acts that defy gravity or the rules of physics are all possible.  But these laws must be consistent and readable. If established clearly, the audience will invest in that invented world and participate in it with their imaginations.

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had a name for viewers who tended to point out plot inconsistencies or aspects of a film that seemed improbable. He called these audience members, “The Plausibles.”  But if the rules and logic of the created world are both consistent and compelling, Mr. and Mrs. Plausible, as I call them in the theater, will not show up to complain.  Of if they do notice certain aberrations from their accustomed reality, it will not make any difference to their involvement in the story. All artists, including theater artists, are responsible for creating a fictional world so compelling and consistent that Mr. and Mrs. Plausible do not show up.

To engage in world-making requires us to keep ourselves perpetually open to what lies outside the parameters of our particular world views. We must allow ourselves to be destabilized by the unknown.  What we do is not just wishful thinking, rather it is experimentation. It is a kind of essay writing or “re-worlding.” Many worlds can exist within the world we are inhabiting. Our job as artists, and in particular in the theater, is to create alternate worlds that may serve as a proposition or a map for substantial change. 

The philosopher Martin Heidegger turned the noun “world” into a verb, “to world.”  “Worlding” (welten) meant the opening of new ways of being-in-the world, of being in time and in history. “To world” is to create new representations by using the languages that we know in order to unmake the world we inhabit and reconstruct another world in its place. He proposed that works of art are particularly useful in re-worlding our conception of it because we are continually shifting our idea of what the world is and what it can be. The world, according to Heidegger, is always in creation.

The young Scottish philosopher William MacAskill, who recently published a book entitled What We Owe the Future, proposes that times of crisis or collapse are also brief moments of plasticity that can provide the conditions for adjustment and change.  We are currently in the midst of this period of plasticity where the “old” world is in crisis and vast parts are collapsing, and a new world has yet to emerge. But, as MacAskill suggests, this time of plasticity is short-lived and eventually the new methods and assumptions will harden into habits that are difficult to change. He offers the example of molten glass. During the process of glassblowing, when the glass is hot, it can be molded into different shapes. But when the glass hardens, it is much more difficult to make changes. After the Second World War institutions like the United Nations were formed and critical decisions were made about how to handle the existence of nuclear weapons. But that time was brief. Soon afterwards, things settled down and entrenchment of norms and laws made change much harder. 

In the arena of theater, we are seeing massive shifts in the structures, ethics, and methods in our work together. In this so-called post-pandemic world, theaters are examining fairness, hierarchy, humane working conditions, anti-racial practices and much, much more. But currently there are very few collective agreements about these new parameters and policies. Easily identifiable rules are hard to find. And there are some people who are still operating under old pre-pandemic industry rules. The changes are mostly happening individually, but not collectively. We need to talk about the situation and find new agreements. We need to renegotiate our assumptions about how our theater world works and then construct and re-make it together. We can succeed in this procedure because it is our profession to constantly re-make, to re-world, the world we inhabit.