All Over Creation: Continuing Education
Turns out theatre is a great place for getting schooled
The woman said that she was going to speak to us about evolutionary biology.
Now, had this been back in my school days, that declaration would have shot a torrent of Barton Springs-chilled water through my veins. See, at some point in my adolescence, science and math stopped coming easily to me, and the deeper into those subjects I ventured, the more I floundered. In my ears then, "evolutionary biology" would have rung with the sound of being dropped into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico without a flotation device.
But I was not in a classroom, and those days were long behind me. In fact, this was just a few weeks ago, and I was inside the Off Center, seated at a long table along with some two dozen other people, and the woman addressing us was a company member of the Rude Mechanicals, playing a character in the troupe's most recent production, Now Now Oh Now. Now, she did indeed go on to discuss concepts in evolutionary biology, and most of it struck me as beyond your basic Darwin – the primary notion being that nature may select for beauty as well as survival skills – but rather than being at sea, I was thoroughly engaged. I mean, I caught that wave way out in the Gulf and rode it all the way in to the Padre shore. What she talked about was not only clear to me, but it's stayed with me in the days since, and I've been much more attentive to birds, wondering about the extent to which sheer pleasure has shaped the development of their coloration and songs.
The week after seeing that show, I found myself watching, to my surprise, another play in which evolutionary biology played a role. In boom (being produced by Capital T Theatre), fish are the creatures of choice, but the play dives into science in much the same fashion as Now Now Oh Now, looking at catastrophic change and the ways that it affects the development of a species. The biological concepts aren't addressed quite as explicitly, but the principles are there, and the messages I took from the play – as may be seen in my review, (see "boom," June 15, 2012) – rose directly from them.
Then I'm back in the theatre this past weekend, and I'm watching a play that has squat to do with evolutionary biology – at least that I could pick up on – but that is dishing up all kinds of meaty info about our seventh President, and I can feel myself learning stuff: about the man, about the people around him, about their motivations and influence on events in our nation's history. This chief executive that I'd always dismissed as a 19th century rehearsal for Ronald Reagan with Kenny Rogers hair and Andy Rooney eyebrows is, in Doctuh Mistuh Productions' staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, suddenly taking on depth and complexity and a vivid, vigorous, vicious life that expands my whole view of what happened in this country in the first half of the 1800s. And I'm thinking, "Damn! This is like school, only exciting."
No, that isn't fair. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy school, and I was fortunate to have many teachers who made the educational process something to tingle the nerves and make me eager to learn. Still, even when a teacher can make historical or scientific or whatever kind of academic material come alive, there's a certain rigidity to the structure that one has to deal with: the order of the classroom, the authority of the teacher, the talks, the texts, the tests, the grades. As students, we're always thwacking up against one or another of these, and too often they constrain our interest in a topic, our desire to learn.
Theatre has its structure, too – it also runs on the clock, seats us in the same ordered rows, and makes us submit to the authority of actors – but even within these confines we are freer: to laugh, to drink, to leave if we choose, to not take notes. (We know we won't be tested on the play after the curtain call.) Theatre also has a little chaos in its corner: the chaos of conflict, which drives its narratives. The constant collision of personalities, passions, interests, strategies, and the way they play out before us in something like real time blows apart the safety of the classroom presentation, where the predigested outcome is never in doubt, whether it's a quadratic equation or political revolution. The risk, the uncertainty, the danger of theatrical narrative draws us in and gives any information conveyed therein – even factoids that might have bored or terrified us in school – an immediacy, an urgency, that we might not have known previously. And that's a stimulus to learning.
That's what I learned from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, boom, and Now Now Oh Now. If nature does select for sheer pleasure, maybe that makes theatre a more evolved form of education.