Updated: Jun 17, 2020
By Charity Brooks ~
So I’m sitting here in my living room, a bowl of cookie dough on hand, and I’m checking my calendar for the next month. Here’s what I have: “Hamilton-Watching Party,” listed on July 3rd.
And that’s it. That’s the only reservation on my quarantined schedule for the next month. My whole family will be watching it, alone, together. And I’m sure we’ll be Zoom-chatting about it later that week. But this is what we’re replacing our family reunions and beach-house getaways with, a musical broadcast. And this is why that’s significant:
It is because we are missing connection right now, and Art is about building connections. Performance art is especially conscious of connection and community. The Knight Foundation―a 50-year company devoted to excellence in journalism and the Arts―did a three- year study based around this question: What attaches people to the place where they live? They interviewed over 40,000 people across the country, and their findings were surprising. Contrary to their hypothesized responses―career and education―they found that the primary binding factors of a community are social offerings and aesthetics.
On reporting the study, Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation, said: “Art binds. Culture generates social capital and strengthens a community’s character. Art brings people together physically―at galleries, museums, performance spaces―and culturally, through its capacity to tell a community’s shared story, to inspire reflection, and form connections that transcend differences.”(1)
In other words, Art reminds us that we are human. Or rather, humans. Together. Which is exactly what we are so desperately missing right now, during the isolation of COVID-19. We have the world at our keyboards, and still we crave the community, the sharing and trading of ideas and stories, the stimulation of a voice that isn’t the one in our own heads. We’ve had weeks of escapism―Animal Crossing and sitcom binges and marble races―and we crave a return to the depths, to the complexities that stretch us toward each other.
Art responds to this craving, it is the yeast that leavens our human experiences. Artist Olafur Eliasson describes it this way: “Engaging with art is not simply a solitary event. The arts and culture represent one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see the world in radically different ways. The important thing is not that we agree about the experience that we share, but that we consider it worthwhile sharing an experience at all.”(2) So we flock to the theater (or we normally would, if it were any other year) to watch Hamilton, or The Book of Mormon, or Fun Home, or Eclipsed, to share an experience―one which may be so starkly different from our own; but which, once experienced, expands our empathy.
Eliasson even goes so far as to say that this empathy, so often produced by art, can―no, should―change the world. “One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others and by global issues like [systemic racism], even when we could easily do something to help. We do not feel strongly enough that we are part of a global community, part of a larger we. Giving people access to data most often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, not empowered and poised for action. This is where art can make a difference. Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.” So we see the statistics of cop brutality towards black people, and we shut down, thinking, “How can I even begin to solve this?” Then we weep at Cynthia Erivo’s impassioned “I’m Here,” and we start the difficult conversations. It is this very idea―that performance art is a shared experience―that gives us the courage to move. The community that we build through art is the same community that provides a safe space for us to act. Together. As humans in empathy.
So, I will watch Hamilton with my family. And I will experience Les Miserables for the first time, again, when I introduce it to my children. And we will talk about standing for something, like Alexander Hamilton. And the power of mercy, embodied by Jean Valjean. And we will raise our voices against racism and bigotry. And I will await the day when our theater can open its doors once again and share experiences with you, our community of humans. Together.