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A Staged Escape

Hello again, my merpeople. Are we still hanging in there? Yes? Well then, it’s time for Deep Thoughts with Captain Obvious:

Life can be overwhelming. I mean, 2020, amiright?

So today I thought I’d do a complete one-eighty from last month’s post and we could all the theater! And how, yes, escapism can actually be a healthy thing.

One of my New Year’s resolutions (Lord forgive me!) was to stay informed and engaged with community and political events all year long. Then, as we know, all hell broke loose. It’s really doing a number on my sleep routine. And my anxiety. And, well, you get it. You know. It hasn’t been pretty. But I am doggedly sticking to it, because it is important for me and for my kids.

But we could use a break, right? Some quiet amid the storm. Where we can turn our brains off and turn our debates down and….sing? Or is that just me?

Actually, no, it’s everyone. Escapism has been a part of art and entertainment since homo erectus faced their first lonely winter in France and thought, “You know, these cave walls could use some color.” They knew the stakes. They knew it was “hunt-and-gather or die.” And yet, they painted stories on rocks.

And so it has been in the darkest times. During the Great Depression, the rising popularity of movies, dance halls, and even jigsaw puzzles attests to the fact that people needed time to lay aside the crushing burdens of unemployment and poverty. Historians observed that “attending movies, listening to the radio, dancing to live music, and reading cheap magazines or books containing sensational or gruesome material, popularly known as pulp fiction, allowed people to escape from the uncertainties, anxieties, and loss of self esteem associated with the Depression years.”¹

And again, in the tumultuous years of World War II, there was an explosion of big bands and musicals. Oklahoma itself opened on Broadway in 1943 to unprecedented success. And while we look at it now and perhaps see utter silliness, it was exactly what citizens needed: a cheerful western, with picnics and petticoats, worlds away from the numbing reality of bomb blackouts and food shortages.

Even in more recent tragedies, entertainment like the theater--and especially musical theater--has been a steadying force to curb fear and anxiety. In the wake of 9/11, we got Mamma Mia! The Theatre Times author Trevor Boffone explained the apt timing of the wildly campy musical when he said, “in the aftermath of 9/11, theatre audiences were eager to escape from the harsh reality of living in a country in which fear now encompassed mainstream everyday life in a way it formerly didn’t. Despite artistic successes of shows such as Urinetown, The Sweet Smell Of Success, and Tick, Tick… Boom!, audiences, by and large, didn’t want to think or be faced with reality when they sat down in the theatre. People just wanted to have fun. They wanted to laugh. They wanted to forget about all of the bad things happening in the world around them. And...Mamma Mia! was a perfectly timed escape into the world of guilty pleasures. Surely few people would argue that the show is high art, but, at the end of the day, does it matter? Does everything have to be Sunday In The Park With George, Fun Home, or Hamilton? It doesn’t and, quite frankly, it shouldn’t. We need musicals like Mamma Mia! just as much as anything else.”²

We need art in order to change the world, absolutely! I hope that point was loud and clear in last month’s blog post (*wink, wink*). We need brave directors and painters and writers who will dive headfirst into the nitty-gritty and tell the stories of the unheard and the underrepresented. We, as consumers, need to listen and see and read those works and ask ourselves, How can I do better?

But also, also, we need the comedy and the slapstick and the quiet beauty of the fictional side of art. So when my head is pounding from the latest Covid update, and the latest political mud-slinging, and the latest tragic local news story, and I can’t spend one more minute discussing in-class-versus-homeschool options with my husband, I can put that all down. Instead, I can turn on my favorite soundtrack and belt out “Defying Gravity” or “The Last Midnight” or--heaven forbid-- “The Winner Takes It All.” And I can lay aside the weight of living and escape for a few short hours. And tomorrow morning, I can do the responsible thing and pick it up again….But I’ll be whistling “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” when I do.



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