I hear "The theater is dead" almost as often as "God is dead." I hear "People can't afford to go to the theater." "People don't wanna drive!" So why would anyone sit down to write "Act One, Scene One" -- especially in a town where you could make real money writing "Int. L.A.
-- Day"? Who in their right mind would do it?
Well, maybe I'm not in my right mind. I do not read the newspaper with equanimity. I talk back to the TV. My mother's mantra was, "Oh you're sooo dramatic!" Had she said, "Oh you're sooo logical!" or "My, what a politic child!" I might have sued cigarette companies or run for Congress. But the way I respond to the world is by taking up a pen. (Yes, a pen.)
But does it matter? Can a play ... change anything? The most depressing quote I ever read is that "97% of what people perceive is what they already believe. What is not in alignment with their beliefs, they simply filter out." That quote inspired me to write a play about how we perceive each other across the divide of race and class -- and it also made me think about my job. I don't think it's my job to change people's minds. I think it's my job to get them arguing in the parking lot after the show.
That said, I'm going to take the opposite point of view now (because that's what I do as a dramatist) and say that, yes!, a play can change our consciousness. Off the top of my head: "Angels in America." "The Crucible." "Lysistrata."
My own experience has been that a play can affect a person's life. Every once in a while, I get a letter that makes me want to get out of bed and write for at least the next month. My play "The Waiting Room" is about three women from different centuries who meet in a modern doctor's waiting room. One of them has
. A woman wrote me that, after seeing the play, she went out and got a mammogram -- and an early diagnosis that saved her life.
"Living Out" is about a Latina nanny and an Anglo mom. I cannot tell you how many people told me they gave their nanny a raise after seeing the show! Nannies told me how empowering it was to come to the Taper and see their lives onstage. I have seen bilingual productions of the play where Anglo audience members are trying to understand the Spanish lines that are making the Latino audience members laugh ... and vice versa. So, yes, I believe that theater can change your perspective, if only for a little while.
But if you really want to see the power of the theater, work with kids. I wrote "Bocon!," a political fable about war and immigration, after interviewing children who'd come to America because of war. It was fascinating to watch the kids in the audience, to see a kid from Van Nuys sitting next to a kid from war-torn El Salvador. A play can change a child's understanding about why that kid next to him is here.
Theater has the power to remind us of our shared humanity. In this political climate, that matters. And, in a world of computers and iPods, a world of screen, there's something about sitting next to a fellow human as the lights go down. There's something about experiencing living, breathing actors -- in real time. You can't
something like that.