Theater Directors Should Think More Like Good Lovers: The Audience Comes First
Theaters today seem like hallowed ground, says Harvard's Diane Paulus, but that's not their natural state. Once, they had the same atmosphere as sport: visceral, alive, and indebted to its audience. How can we get back there?
Diane Paulus is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and was selected for the 2014 TIME 100, TIME Magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Paulus is the 2013 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical (Pippin). A.R.T.: Eve Ensler's In the Body of the World, Waitress (currently on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater), Crossing Finding Neverland, Witness Uganda, Pippin (Tony Award, Best Revival and Best Director), The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (Tony Award, Best Revival, NAACP Award, Best Direction), Prometheus Bound, Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, Best of Both Worlds, Johnny Baseball, The Donkey Show.
Her other recent work includes Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna, Invisible Thread At Second Stage, The Public Theater's Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR on Broadway and London's West End. As an opera director, her credits include The Magic Flute, the complete Monteverdi cycle, and the trio of Mozart-Da Ponte operas, among others. Diane is Professor of the Practice of Theater in Harvard University's English Department. She was selected as one of Variety's “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014" and Boston Magazine's “50 Thought Leaders of 2014."
Diane Paulus: The thing about theater is that it actually only can happen with an audience and that is a defining feature of this art form. You can write a poem, you can paint a painting put it on a wall, you can't write a book; it can exist in the world. But theater really cannot exist except with an audience. And one might say well you've got your play script in your hand, you've got your Penguin Pocket classic addition of a Shakespeare play, that's theater as literature, but live theater not only can only happen with an audience but in many ways it happens inside of the audience's head. So for me as a director I've always felt the audience is the partner. And we think in our profession you think about the writers you work with, the actors, all the people that make the art form, and yet for me the audience completes it.
And that has not always been I think a point of view that has been shared. I think because so people feel that an audience can pollute your artistic intention or bring it down or you can't pander to an audience. And I think especially in the 20th century art there was a move towards a kind of cultural elitism were there was a sense that an audience doesn't really know what they want so you've got to give them something that they may not know what they want. I think for me my roots are in a kind of populism so I have total faith and confidence in an audience and I believe an audience wants to be, yes entertained, but they also want to think; they want to be stretched; they want to feel alive; they want to feel their heart pound that's why we go to the theater.
So I've always found the audience as a driver of the process. And I've sat on the many panels with other artists who say well why do you think about the audience? No, I've got to think about my art. For me art comes from the end result of thinking what does the audience want? Why are they going to bother to come out of their busy lives to be in a theater for two to three hours? To me that's a super generous act. So I want to think about the audience as a collaborator.
The great thing about theater is that it is live and even though you've made a thousand decisions when you direct a production and the play has been written or the music has been scored, there is this presence of performance that can change day-to-day and it's what makes our art form so special, it's also what drives us crazy. Being a theater person I remember being in a seminar with a number of film makers and all the theater people looked at the film makers and said oh my God you've got it so easy. You get to that performance on tape and you've got it forever. And in the theater you've got to rehearse it, you've got to re-create it, maybe it happens once, in a rehearsal how do you get that actor to that level the next time when you hit the scene again, let alone eight times a week in a show that's running on Broadway?
And the funny thing is, and I'll never forget this, the filmmakers in that group said but you can change. You can change what you're doing. You can respond. And it was an anecdote that was told about Jacques Tati, a very famous filmmaker, and I've never forgotten this story that he would screen a film and then in between the showings he would go to the control booth and with the scissors try to edit the film because he had learned something from the audience and he was like madly trying to just cut and paste his film to change it based on what he had learned. And I always say to the artist I'm working with, particular actors, we get to respond. The earth is rotated. It's a new day. Events in our lives will impact what an audience is feeling when they come to the theater tonight. The air we're breathing is actually different. And if you can actually embrace that then you will achieve that kind of presents, which you can only get in the theater.
Now having said that, I think we all know we've been to the theater and you don't feel alive. I mean I have done theater all my life and I go to see a lot of theater and I've even felt that myself. You can actually go to a theater event and feel like it's hermetically sealed, like you could be there or not and you're not impacting it. You could, as an audience member, perhaps fall asleep at a show, which I've done. Which you go to any member of shows you've seen you kind of look up and down the theater and maybe somebody is sleeping and it doesn't have an impact. So I think this question of how does an audience actually impact a show is at the heart of what makes theater theater. And I think for me I, in the 21st century where I sit making shows, I want to push that presence of an audience. What do I mean by that? I want an audience to feel entitled and empowered to respond.
I do a lot of Broadway musicals and when I'm in my shows in the audience and I hear people around me singing the lyrics, I love it. I love it that an audience is so connected that they want to sing along. Now, of course, for some other audience members it drives them crazy. They turn around and they're like will you please ask that person to be quiet? I like to push theater because that's what we do in our art form to a place where an audience can express themselves like you would at a great sporting event. I often say the problem with the theater is you say what professions are you in and you say well, I do the theater. And I used to think would you ever say like oh what profession are you in? I do sports. You never say that. And there are codes of etiquette for all different kind of sporting events and you can appreciate that at a golf match, or I was just at the US Open, you have to be quiet or you'll be asked to leave. The serve goes you can't influence, you have to kind of be invisible and that's serving the concentration of the game. You go to a basketball game you're behind the net and it's a foul shot, you're supposed to pick up your foam finger and like to do everything you can to distract the player. That's your job as an audience.
So those are two different audience behaviors all on this continuum of sports and I think we tend to feel that in the theater your job, because most of us have this experience when you go to the theater as an audience, you arrive; you get your program; you might arrive with friends but you then sit in a line in seats bolted to the floor; the lights go out; you're supposed to be quiet. If you talk back to the stage you probably will be asked to leave because that's not good audience behavior. And then the show happens you either are very entertained, you cry, you laugh, maybe you fall asleep; the show ends; you applaud; the usher says please leave. And to me that's not the history of theater. That's one example of a behavior of theater and that behavior was very much defined by a radical turn at the beginning of the 20th century with naturalism. When we were coming out of a time of public spectical theater and Vaudeville houses in America where you talked back and there was this radical movement of like no, the audience should be invisible. You should be a voyeur looking through a peephole. And that's right in the line with Richard Wagner saying, "I can't stand the polluting of the art form. Turn the lights out. Put the audience in the dark."
The audiences weren't in the dark always. The audience was lit in the theater because that was part of the social experience. You went to the theater not only to see a show but you went to the theater to be seen and be seen. A 19th-century opera house with its gold guild ornate balconies and chandeliers was like the modern day nightclub, you know, you were watching an incredibly evocative opera but you were also looking at who was in the box and sort of flirting with them because that's what you did and it was a social space. And it was radical to say put all that aside. That's all distraction. Let's be invisible. Let's just silently watch. And all the art that came out of that, you know, the Stanislavski and Chekhov, that was radical in its time. But I think we've inherited that and we think that's all theater is or can be. And I now believe that if we're going to make the theater vital and necessary we have to return it to its roots where the audience's voice matters.
Diane Paulus does for theatre what Susan Orlean did for orchids; she takes a subject that many think of as niche, uninteresting or eccentric and performs CPR on it through sheer passion and description.
Paulus is the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard University, and is the art form's greatest ambassador, but she isn’t so embedded in the world of theatre that she’s blind to its public perception. She can understand the knee-jerk allergy some people have to it – a hushed room with the house lights down, an invisible audience, and at times a stiff atmosphere. She knows what it’s like to fall asleep in a production better than anyone.
The fact is that theaters aren’t meant to be hallowed ground, and Paulus puts that standard down to the shift towards naturalism that occurred in the early 20th century. The old vaudeville houses were interactive; in gilded opera theatres, the lights used to stay up, the crowd as much of a spectacle and dramatic social circus as the one that was happening on stage.
Paulus likens it to sport; not all games or matches share one quiet, obedient audience. In golf, silence is customary, but in basketball, the crowd brings the energy and participates actively, even swaying the results of the game through their encouragement or distractions. Theater used to be that way too, with a spectrum of audience behaviors to match the tone of each production. The theater experience can rise out of its stagnant reputation, and for Paulus that means focusing on a theater director’s greatest collaborator: the audience.Find more about Diane Paulus at www.dianepaulus.net
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For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.