Speak to Me

For an hour or so last night, the words of Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin filled a small New Haven coffee shop. No, the noted science-fiction writers weren’t there, but a short story by each was, brought to life by two local actors. The readings were part of an ongoing series called Listen Here!, a joint venture of the New Haven Review, New Haven Theater Company, and the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.

listen here

From an earlier reading, as featured in the Times

The series started earlier this fall, but this was the first one I could make. And though not “theater” in the traditional sense, it reminded me of why I like theater so much — real people speaking meaningful words in front of a rapt audience (coffee drinkers and chatterers in the room behind us excepted). I’m always struck by the excitement I feel with each new performance I see, unless it’s truly awful; the spectacle, the magic of live theater never fades. Neither does the amazement that so many people never go to the theater or hear any kind of spoken-word performance.

Certainly there’s been an explosion of opportunities over the past two decades. The economics of producing full-scale live theater and the drive for something new have led to such things as poetry slams, open-mic readings, solo shows (ahem…), and events such as last night’s. Every city seems to have some sort of spoken-word operation, with the most famous probably New York’s The Moth (which now has a Chicago spin-off at one of my old neighborhood haunts). Whether it’s people telling their own stories or reading others’, the events fill a primal need. We crave literary narrative, which mirrors the arc of own lives, and getting that fix in a live setting, surrounded by others, probably dates from when humans first learned how to talk (once they came up with a few adjectives and adverbs).

And for the actor/reader/speaker, the electricity of having an audience respond to your words, your emotions — heady stuff. I got just a taste when I was developing the solo show and read a selection at a “salon” at my instructor’s house. Extreme cottonmouth aside, hearing the laughter, knowing the small crowd was attentive, made me realize the power of the spoken word for both audience and performer.

reality t

Couldn't have said it better myself...

Unfortunately, the literary curmudgeon in me says films and TV and now the Internet have hacked away at live theater, and the new spoken-word alternatives play to painfully small audiences, when you think about the millions at any moment plopped down in front of inane reality shows or their Xboxes. For whatever reason, people have drifted away from coming together as a group and focusing on real people in front of them telling a story. So maybe the need isn’t so primal. Or getting the narrative through other forms suffices.

thdionysus2

The remains of the theater of Dionysus, in Athens

I sometimes wonder: Have people lost their ability to pay attention to something so “boring” as people speaking? Has the new technology made it harder for us to focus? What do students do, to survive hour-long college lectures? Is there still such a beast? But as I realized a few years ago, when I went back to church for the first time in ages, millions of people hear the spoken word every week. A sermon or homily may not be a narrative, but it does bring people together for a shared verbal experience. (Assuming you stay awake, something my father used to have trouble doing… ) And of course theater’s roots go back to the religious festivals of the Greeks, concrete expressions of the revelry associated with Dionysus. Attending a performance of spoken word, dance, or song, wherever it’s held, still provides a divine presence.

I should accept Listen Here! and the Moth and the open-mic storytelling as good things. People do still care about words and will venture out to hear them. Hopefully, each new generation will produce enough writers and actors and storytellers, because I can’t imagine that impulse for the communal sharing of narrative and ideas going away. But if kids don’t get introduced to theater when they’re young, as I did, and we as a society consider drama and literature a frill, are we doomed to ever-more iterations of “Help, I’m An American Idol’s Worst Parent” as our pathway to self-exploration and the divine?

Not a happy thought.

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~ by mburgan on November 13, 2009.

5 Responses to “Speak to Me”

  1. God Bless Garrison Keilor.

  2. I never listened to the show much, until recently. Some of it is good, some is a little hokey, though I know that’s by design. I like his op-ed pieces.

  3. Hey, I’m glad you liked Listen Here! I’ve been to a few and I really like it too. It’s like story time for grown-ups. I told Bennett that I’d like to start pulling books off my shelf and say “read this one to me, read this next!”. Thu. nights are not always good for me but sometimes it’s happening right in my own neighborhood.

  4. Let me know the next time you’re going. Though I know they take a long hiatus after the next one or two. Only drag was the acoustics–too much noise from the other room.

  5. I will let you know next time I go.
    Last time I went it was at Menjares and the place was PACKED, no one was there who didn’t want to hear the story so that wasn’t a problem but if you showed up right at start time you couldn’t even get in the door… thanks to NYT

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