It was a slap in the face.
A friend of mine, dropped off in Tanzania by our Peace Corps, got back to me on this via e-mail while he was there. I asked if he had been involved in any kind of religious gathering, if he had bridged his culture shock by hearing any stories, if they even have a kind of theatrical experience close to what we know as theatre or dance or song or poetry. I wanted to get to know the culture he was immersed in, and my personal doorway into that is story... something about asking these questions made me think of my return to the continental states after living in Hawaii and a fellow student asking me "Do they, like, have malls in Hawaii?" ...
"No," was the answer I got. No theatre at all. "Maybe I just haven't seen it yet," he said - he had been there for two years. He'd been a theatre guy before, and he knew what I was asking - it's not that they don't put on Hamlet. They don't have storytelling, he told me. "Mostly people are concerned with work and survival. If I hand my class paper and markers, the girls will draw the same flower as their friend. They'll use all the ink in a marker drawing a flower."
I didn't get it. Certainly they must question and ponder the meaning of humanity, right? And then transpose that into some kind of artistic expression? That's what's essential to being human, after all. We can look into mirrors and see ourselves the way we can look up into the sky and see god. We "hold the mirror up to nature." That's what makes us human. Right? If I'm wrong about this, then I have to quit being an artist altogether and take up science engineering, because I've been running on the assumption that art has some kind of essential -albeit impractical- use to humanity as a whole.
To not have myth or storytelling confused me. At this juncture, it could have been all too easy to simply dehumanize an entire culture, assume that "the other" is on some kind of lower plane of thought, and move on with my highly intellectual and cultured life without giving it any more consideration. That's not what I wanted to do, obviously. It's my drawing board that's missing an essential element, NOT two thirds of the globe. It's gotta have something to do with my euro-centric brain attempting to comprehend completely different societal structures.
The Dark Ages, known as such because the privileged class of The Renaissance named it that way, isn't really known for it's flourishing folk art and hilarious pastoral comedies. People were focused on survival more than intellectual discourse - art waited. During The Renaissance, a time of wealth and privilege, people made stuff like this:
Art as a product of culture - specifically performance art, that requires a group of people to participate - needs more than just the time to do it in. It needs the impulse of a group of people to get together in the first place. People have to want to gather for some reason... whether it be gathering at church or a movie theater, performance art needs the draw of an audience. People need to want to be in the same room together. Theatre is a community event.
With that in mind, storytelling isn't an essential part of being human, but a product of the basic human need for unity... which is there on the list, it's just after we've secured water, shelter, fire, food, first aid, and self defense... once we feel safe, once we feel secure, once we feel like it is possible to reach out to our neighbors and connect, that's when we start telling stories. An exchange about your day over your neighbor's fence comes from the same place inside you as the drive to go to church with your mom, to experience a movie with your new boyfriend, to see a play. To make a play. To play.
SO: IN A CULTURE THAT IS TOO BUSY SURVIVING TO THINK ABOUT ART, HOW DO WE USE THEATRE TO BRING THEM TOGETHER?*
actually, the question should be: HOW DO THEY USE THEATRE TO BRING THEMSELVES TOGETHER? ... in the difference between those two questions lies the essential problems I'm facing being a "theatre teacher." Along this train of thought is the conclusion that theatre isn't really something that can be taught. The tools can be taught, but the drive to be in the same room together comes from the people first.
Okay, I recognize and appreciate the differences between the Peace Corps sending my friend to Tanzania vs. a wealthy theatre company sending me into after-school programs in under-served community schools... but the parallels are there. The school I'm teaching in currently struggles (and too often fails) to foster creative or critical thinking - our public education system as it stands is to corrupt to have time for that. The students do not want to be in the room together. They don't feel safe to express themselves there. They didn't chose this community. They may have fire, shelter, water, but they have not secured self-defense, and in a lot of cases, they haven't had proper sleep or nutrition. It is NOT a lack of creativity. They have plenty. It is NOT that they are incapable. I've seen them prove otherwise on multiple occasions. Just not together, because it's freaking difficult to create community when there is little to no trust. When they keep giving each other reasons not to trust each other - when being on top is more important than being together.
It's hella frustrating. For everyone. And I haven't been asking the right questions. But I've been learning a lot.
They don't need more expensive supplies. They need a total system overhaul. But I can't single-handedly fix our public education system- especially when the people in charge seem to not really give a crap about what educators think about education. And I can't come in and impose a trusting community on them any more than 'Merica can drop a bunch of Democracy on a different country. There are culture gaps. There are things I do not understand. There's that whole White Savior thing. And anyway, as iterated before, trust comes from within the community first - it's a thing you learn together, not a bubble you fill in on a scantron test. It's not something we can show our parents or old rich white guys with pens poised over check books. It's a shift on the inside unseen by an audience... the irony is not lost on me that theatre can teach it.
UGH. This all makes me want to hide under my bed.