Theatre and Her Ability to Forecast

Sometimes I can’t be sure if what I’m reading in the paper is news, because it so frequently feels like a moment of déjà vu. Take this morning’s LA Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the recent renovations of the Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley, in which she reports a removal of 135,000 books from the library to make more study areas, nap zones in futuristic “nap pods.” The photos show students hunkered down over their computers reading, or on the modernistic equivalent of a back porch, where they work on their computers while looking through a wall of glass at surrounding trees. It is positively bucolic. The only thing missing is a frosty glass of lemonade on the side table. And the book. And yet… where have I seen this idea before?

In the theatre of course. Only seven years ago. Back in 2010, in a production entitled futura  at the Theatre @ Boston Court, we learned about the terrifying possibility that a future society would lose respect for and possession of all our books, in a rush to embrace technology. In today’s article, Libraries turn the page, the change happened because

students kept asking, ‘In the spirit of challenging the status quo, why is this library filled with dusty books no one looks at and I can’t get a study space?’

Teresa Watanabe, Libraries turn the page,

Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17

As a denizen of the theatre, I and countless other audience members confronted this unimaginable future by attending the theatre, where Jordan Harrison’s powerful play unspooled this to us, realized with pulpable (ouch) power by director Jessica Kubzansky.

I also stage managed a play at the Geffen Playhouse years ago, a two-hander by playwright Lee Kalcheim, starring Jason Alexander and Peter Falk, entitled Defiled, which depicted what happened when a computer threatened to replace a library’s card catalogue. How many card catalogues are still in use in the Moffitt Library, I wonder?

One only needs to see a play like the current one we are presenting at USC School of Dramatic Arts, which shall remain nameless, where after a nuclear apocalypse “we” are left literally powerless to fend for ourselves in communities of fearful survivors. These survivors amuse/distract/cling to each other by sharing stories/episodes of a familiar tv series around a campfire, and in subsequent acts re-create theatre around these shared stories.

My take away from this current production is that as a society, we’re potentially nuclear nano-seconds away losing everything we take for granted; we are nano-seconds from a moment when study and nap pods could be pointless without the electricity.

But what tantalizes me today isn’t thinking about our carelessness with our legacy of dusty old books no one looks at, but really about the Cassandra-like power of theatre.

This week has been busy – filled with dress rehearsals of the two main stage plays, one of which is Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the second referenced above, and a third workshop play of MFA Dramatic Writer Hannah Langley’s Losing My Religion (in 140 characters or less).

Wedekind’s play, written in the late 19th Century, spookily forecasts the sexual awakening of teens in a repressive German society, and their missteps due to ignorance and the unwillingness of the adults to be honest about the changes they are experiencing. But the reason it’s still relevant is that these issues are ever present in our society today.

As I write this, the TV blares with the news about a certain anchor’s dismissal from Fox News for sexual harassment charges, ostensibly, but we all know it’s actually because of the loss of advertising minutes they’ve sustained recently. Déjà vu? Well, unfortunately, yes, because we just watched the head of that network be unseated only a month ago. But so long ago, on stage, we watched David Mamet’s Oleanna, which premiered in May of 1992, and has had many subsequent productions, most recently in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in June, 2009.

The power of theatre to forewarn us, to remind us of our foibles and their ultimate destructive and redemptive capacity is one of the things that I have always thrilled to, perhaps with the exception of Center Theatre Group’s production of Vicuna, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I happened to see it the week before the most recent Presidential election. How smug I was, as I sat in the theatre watching the buffoonishly theatricalized character so like Donald Trump preen and provoke us.

That will never happen to us. Phew!

While I watched the show, I also thought about how bold it was of Jon Robin Baitz to write a play with such a short shelf life and how extraordinary it was that Center Theatre Group would produce it. What a risk! How could it be relevant to us after the election when we had the first woman President in the White House? A week or so later, I listened to a radio interview with actor Harry Groener, who played the Trump character as he recounted that the week after the election, the audience reactions were completely different. There were many fewer laughs, and the communal grief was palpable.

Years ago, when my Mom was still alive, an inveterate death-long smoker, she wrote an op-ed piece for the small local Pennsylvania newspaper where she imagined a day when we wouldn’t be allowed to smoke in our own homes. There would be smoke-police, and dire consequences for those who continued to light up. I was impressed with her Swift-like satire about the future, unimaginable when she wrote it in the early 90s. Now I know she wasn’t satirizing, but prognosticating about the future world, much as Baitz, Wedekind, Kalcheim, Mamet and the playwright who shall remain nameless have done. I feel fortunate to be a member of a theatre tribe where the work we do carries that magical lens through which we can view our past, present and future as a society. Aside from the poignancy and the humor and the immediacy of the work, playwrights have the visionary power to take us forward in time.

All of this seems pretty far from the study room at the new Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley. But maybe one of those students, feet up on the wall, looking out through the trees might prop up a script of Spring Awakening on his or her legs and think about what Frank Wedekind is telling us about the future so distant from and yet so relevant to his past. Or better yet, this student may elect to attend a play this weekend to see first hand what the magic is all about.