An Audience with the King: On democracy and the theater

On November 18, 2016, newly elected Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance of the global phenomenon Hamilton and experienced something very rare in the world of theater.

An address from the cast of the show: “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us..”

Those words were spoken after the performance by Brandon Victor Dixon, an actor in the show, who instructed the audience not to jeer at Pence, saying, “There’s nothing to boo here; we’re all sharing a story of love.”

He thanked the vice president for attending the show, delivered the message about the alarmed and anxious America that was looking toward the next four years with concerns that would prove to be more than warranted, and spoke words of unity.

“We don’t have to fight one another. The beautiful part of this country is … we don’t have to agree, but we gotta live here, baby, and share with one another.”

The word “share” kept coming up. Because that’s what we do in theater. We share. We share our talents, the audience shares their time and we all share an experience.

What we walk away from when we leave that experience is up to us and our individual perspectives, but for an hour or two or three and a half (if you’re watching King Lear), we share a sense of what it is to be that melting pot we so often hear America described as in our history books. We are a mini-community at a town hall watching a pageant play out in front of us that will hopefully tell us something we didn’t know about ourselves.

Or just make us laugh when someone goes through the wrong door and finds their spouse in bed with the bellhop. It depends which matinee you’re at.

Mike Pence and his eventful night at Hamilton has been on my mind a lot lately. Compared to everything that’s happened since then, it’s really just a blip on the horrific timeline that has become this president’s America, but it’s probably worth looking at again as we approach a holiday that many of us have very good reasons to feel conflicted about: the Fourth of July.

It occurred to me while I was trying to think of something to write about in regard to patriotism and theater that wasn’t cliched or sentimental or some term paper about how we can make a better democracy if we just look to the rehearsal room that I should go back and look at what was said to Pence that night. I realized that while I had probably read the statement at the time, all I could remember was the response that followed. The president was furious and demanded an apology. Fox News was in an uproar. Liberals were cheering, and Pence had this to say about it:

“I did hear what was said from the stage. I can tell you I wasn’t offended by what was said. I will leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it… When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers… I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I can’t help but zero in on the “appropriate venue” part of the statement. I recall at the time of this event that conservatives — and even some liberals — were drumming up that wonderful old argument about artists making art and leaving politics to the politicians.

Forget that the message of the cast was basically, “Hey, we’re worried.  Please don’t hurt us. Govern well. Peace and love. Thanks,” and that, as taxpayers, they had every right to address the person representing them.  On the political scale, it was more of a fortune cookie than a manifesto, but we were already in the midst of a time when even asking for something as simple as compassion was about to become inflammatory.

The outcry also neglected the simple fact that none of us have a lot of opportunities to talk directly to those in the highest offices of power. (If you’re wondering if I’m going to throw in something about the cast not wanting to throw away their shot, I’m not, because I’m not a hack, but I had a feeling you were thinking it, so I just wanted to get it out of the way.)

In fact, if people were upset that the incoming vice president was forced to listen to a political message, I’m not sure why they weren’t bothered that he chose to go to a show like Hamilton in the first place. It seems to me that if you were hoping to avoid a statement about the benefits of diversity and the power of resistance, you’d be better off taking in a performance of Cats — which also was playing that night.

As I’ve been thinking about this brief moment in time when a group of artists was allowed to speak to the man who was about to become second-in-line to the presidency, I’m also thinking about what it’s been like lately to watch other people watch theater.

I can’t say when my habit of watching the audience at a show began, but it’s one I’m having trouble breaking. That might be because I’ve noticed a distinct discomfort in some people when they’re forced to sit and view a bunch of people onstage, in a spotlight, commanding attention and putting on a play or musical uninterrupted (most of the time). When I mention this to friends, they claim the usual — shorter attention spans, the play is probably bad and couldn’t keep their focus, cell phones, uncomfortable seats, etc. But like Carrie Bradshaw, I can’t help but wonder…

Could it also be that we’ve forgotten how to give the floor to others? That a culture that’s become obsessed with fame to the point where we place reality stars in the White House has a hard time letting others have their moment — if only for one or two acts?

When Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mike Pence on behalf of the cast of Hamilton, what seemed so disturbing to those who found this to be out-of-line, whether they realized it or not, was that it was a reminder of the power of theater and the arts.

You are contained. You are quiet. You are listening. You are being told something. In some cases, you’re even being sold something.

And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it until the lights come up and you’re allowed to go to the nearest bar and talk it all over with friends, assuming you enjoy analyzing the entertainment you take in, and if you don’t, you really should. You really, really should.

Now, it’s true that Dixon and his cast and crew members could have just let the message of Hamilton speak for itself and let that be the end of it.  The show certainly has a lot to say and no trouble saying it.

It would be easier to assume that had Pence taken in Cats, that production team might have felt a greater urge to speak out, since their show isn’t all that political, unless you’re anti-feline or pro-canine. So why did the artists in Hamilton do it? Simply because they had the floor? Because it was their house and they can do what they like in it? Because it was November 2016 and we were all doing insane things and some of us have been doing insane things ever since like writing thinkpieces about what happened when a vice president went to a Broadway show so we can try and find a meaning in it that will shed a light on our democracy and how we’re supposed to celebrate it on its birthday? Who knows?

I’m not writing this to find a reason. I’m not writing this to justify patriotism. I’m writing it, because I’m an artist myself. And I think it’s important to remember anytime you create a piece of art that you have no idea who it’s going to reach.

If you’re thinking, “Hey, maybe the vice president will see this,” it might encourage you to aim a little higher as an artist, but it also might drive you crazy, so just disregard that and keep doing your best.

We can’t all walk into a theater expecting to change the course of history or witness a seismic shift in the predicted timeline. Chances are, we’ll walk out just as we walked in. It’s safe to say Mike Pence did. But that’s not actually why theater is important. It’s not what happens after it’s over that speaks to its relevance, but what happens during it.  

And I’m not talking about the art itself, although that certainly can be relevant, but rather, the fact — the miraculous fact — that a group of people with their own minds and their own opinions and their own stories agree to enter a room, sit quietly and let someone else speak. It really is incredible if you think about it.

It’s the reason we need to make sure everyone gets a chance to enter that room, and this is where you can break off and write your own thinkpieces about diversifying an audience, the high cost of ticket prices (ironically to a show like Hamilton) and whatever else you’d like to say. Say it. I’m serious. It’s your right. Exercise it.

But at a time when everybody wants to yell over everybody else and we give prizes to whoever yells the loudest, it’s remarkable that theater has survived and that it’s still the best place to find a group of people agreeing to take in someone else’s perspective, someone else’s message, someone else’s story.

You could make the same case for other places as well, but I could probably put up a good fight about each of them. Because theater, like democracy, is fragile. The proceedings can be cut short by nearly anything. A ringing phone. An unwrapped candy. An actor choking on the sandwich the director asked him to eat in under a minute even though he told him that would lead to disaster. (I really hope nobody ever finds the video of that.) At any moment, the entire thing could come crashing down.

As powerful as it is, it’s also unbelievably delicate, and the agreement we make to preserve it is one that I still marvel at when I’m watching something and I notice that special stillness in the room as everybody leans in so they don’t miss a second of what’s going to happen next.

You probably didn’t get to see The Lifespan of a Fact on Broadway last fall, and that’s a real shame, because it was brilliant. Totally brilliant. And one of the many brilliant things about it was that it ended with a prolonged silence, initiated by a character in the play, and honored by everyone at the matinee I was attending. That’s right — the matinee.

Nobody coughed. No cell phones rang. Nobody even shifted in their seat. I’m sure not every audience was so lucky, but mine was pristine in its reverence for what was asked of us.

Sit there. Listen. Give us your time. Give us the floor. A moment of silence. Can we do it? I think we can do it. Let’s give it a shot. We’re all going to do this together. An entire Broadway theater. Hundreds of people. And we all have to be quiet. Okay? Ready? Go.

And we did it. And, forgive me, but it felt very … democratic.

After Pence attended Hamilton, its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted the following: “Proud of Hamilton. Proud of Brandon Victor Dixon, for leading with love. And proud to remind you that ALL are welcome at the theater.”

It might make you cringe at first. To say that someone like Mike Pence is welcome anywhere. But looking at it now, it seems to me that Miranda is reminding us that it’s being welcoming that makes theater — and America — so great.

That the two are at their finest when we remember to share, to listen and that it’s never inappropriate to suggest that those of us at the bottom have a right to speak to those at the top. Because a theater is one of those places where the listener is not weak for listening and the speaker is not in charge just because they’re speaking. It’s a place of expression — the same way many of us would like America to be. A place where you don’t have to raise your voice for it to be heard. A good theater is designed to carry a voice to everyone in it. Sometimes I wish they designed democracy the same way, but maybe we’ll get there one day.

For now, if you need to find a small reason to celebrate this Fourth of July, think back to November 2016 and know that even after commanding several minutes of the vice president’s time and facing the fury of the president as a result, Hamilton still thrives. Art is still being made. And you can still walk into a theater and participate in a communal experience that embodied democracy before democracy was even invented.

All we ask in return is that you let us speak our message to you. That you trust us with your time. That you give us the floor. That you let us tell you our story. And that you please, please, please —

Turn off your cell phones.

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