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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The pandemic has many people questioning whether they ever want to go back to the office.
If one thing is clear about remote work, it's this: Many people prefer it and don't want their bosses to take it away.
When the pandemic forced office employees into lockdown and cut them off from spending in-person time with their colleagues, they almost immediately realized that they favor remote work over their traditional office routines and norms.
As remote workers of all ages contemplate their futures – and as some offices and schools start to reopen – many Americans are asking hard questions about whether they wish to return to their old lives, and what they're willing to sacrifice or endure in the years to come.
Even before the pandemic, there were people asking whether office life jibed with their aspirations.
We spent years studying “digital nomads" – workers who had left behind their homes, cities and most of their possessions to embark on what they call “location independent" lives. Our research taught us several important lessons about the conditions that push workers away from offices and major metropolitan areas, pulling them toward new lifestyles.
Legions of people now have the chance to reinvent their relationship to their work in much the same way.
Big-city bait and switch
Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants.
But then came the burnout.
Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism.
Pauline, 28, who worked in advertising helping large corporate clients to develop brand identities through music, likened city life for professionals in her peer group to a “hamster wheel." (The names used in this article are pseudonyms, as required by research protocol.)
“The thing about New York is it's kind of like the battle of the busiest," she said. “It's like, 'Oh, you're so busy? No, I'm so busy.'"
Most of the digital nomads we studied had been lured into what urbanist Richard Florida termed “creative class" jobs – positions in design, tech, marketing and entertainment. They assumed this work would prove fulfilling enough to offset what they sacrificed in terms of time spent on social and creative pursuits.
Yet these digital nomads told us that their jobs were far less interesting and creative than they had been led to expect. Worse, their employers continued to demand that they be “all in" for work – and accept the controlling aspects of office life without providing the development, mentorship or meaningful work they felt they had been promised. As they looked to the future, they saw only more of the same.
Ellie, 33, a former business journalist who is now a freelance writer and entrepreneur, told us: “A lot of people don't have positive role models at work, so then it's sort of like 'Why am I climbing the ladder to try and get this job? This doesn't seem like a good way to spend the next twenty years.'"
By their late 20s to early 30s, digital nomads were actively researching ways to leave their career-track jobs in top-tier global cities.
Looking for a fresh start
Although they left some of the world's most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives.
With more and more companies now offering employees the choice to work remotely, there's no reason to think digital nomads have to travel to southeast Asia – or even leave the United States – to transform their work lives.
During the pandemic, some people have already migrated away from the nation's most expensive real estate markets to smaller cities and towns to be closer to nature or family. Many of these places still possess vibrant local cultures. As commutes to work disappear from daily life, such moves could leave remote workers with more available income and more free time.
The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers' primary jobs.
The future of work, while not entirely remote, will undoubtedly offer more remote options to many more workers. Although some business leaders are still reluctant to accept their employees' desire to leave the office behind, local governments are embracing the trend, with several U.S. cities and states – along with countries around the world – developing plans to attract remote workers.
This migration, whether domestic or international, has the potential to enrich communities and cultivate more satisfying work lives.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.