My four year-old son loves to play Angry Birds. Actually, to be perfectly clear, what he loves is to watch me play Angry Birds for him, given that he can’t quite manipulate the little slingshot well enough on his own yet. We cuddle up together on our favorite red love seat, my iPad held carefully between us, and I fling birds while he cheers me on. He knows which birds have which special powers, of course, and he also understands which birds are most likely to destroy which substances. “The yellow birds are good for wood, Daddy,” he instructs me, “and the blue birds break the glass.” He giggles with glee every time a black bird explodes through cartoon stone or a big red bird reduces an ice structure to fragments. The more chaos I create, the more he likes it.
I’m not surprised by his love of the game. Little children love destruction because it helps them feel, in a world built for grownups, power. My son doesn’t yet know destruction’s costs, either—and he doesn’t really have to pay them—so it’s easy for him to feel nothing but glee at the collapse of, say, a massive Lego tower. Somewhere in my brain, meanwhile, when a seemingly-solid structure of primary-colored plastic bricks begins to disintegrate, neurons attached to a vision of the Twin Towers begin to vibrate. The memory of an earthquake-crushed Chinese schoolhouse makes an unwelcome appearance, and suddenly my son’s innocent play becomes (though he can’t, mercifully, know this) a rehearsal for future devastation.
So I understand why my son plays Angry Birds, or wants me to play it: his powerlessness craves the game and his innocence lets him love it. But why do I? I’m neither powerless nor innocent, but I still occasionally pass five or ten minutes replaying what now feels like a hideous narrative: The pigs stole our eggs, and we will destroy ourselves in the relentless pursuit of revenge. (Merely writing that sentence made me feel not-insignificant anxiety.) More importantly, what am I teaching my son by cuddling up with him while I do it? That if he wants to be close to his father, he can become Captain Ahab or George Bush? (Writing that sentence turned my anxiety into shame.) Time for serious reflection.
I am writing the first draft of this blog post while sitting on United flight 1193 between San Francisco and DC in a painfully tiny seat. My hips squeeze between the armrests with perhaps a millimeter to spare, but my super-broad shoulders extend easily six or eight inches beyond them—or, rather, they would extend that far if there were sufficient room. My left shoulder is curled agonizingly forward so that it doesn’t intrude too rudely into the personal space of the nice older woman seated beside me. My torso, meanwhile, is bent about 15 degrees to the right to keep me a bit further away from her, which means that my other shoulder juts almost one foot out into the aisle, a position that earns me repeated shoves from passengers patrolling the aisle and the occasional sharp thump of the flight attendant’s cart.
And this is not the worst of my agony: my legs suffer even more terribly. I’m 6’4″ tall, you see, with most of my height originating below my waist. (The lady sitting next to me can’t be any taller than 5’6″; if we were to turn and speak to one another, however, we would almost see eye-to-eye.) The length of my legs requires a series of awkward physical contortions that begin uncomfortably and, over the course of a cross-country flight, gradually transform into the source of lasting aches. If you ever have the misfortune of sitting in front of me on an airplane, you will find that you cannot recline your seat: my femurs will not allow it (and you will cause me real pain every time you try). I can contain multitudes, per Whitman, but this pathetic excuse for a chair cannot contain even me.
I have devoted many an airplane daydream to a serious attempt at devising a system by which each passenger might be given a seat suited to his or her body—without, of course, requiring first-class fares for people with genetic profiles like mine. I’m sure I’m not the first person to do this, and I’m also sure there are feasibility studies locked away in secret hard drives at the headquarters of every major airline. (All undoubtedly marked “Way Too Expensive.”) They key to my vision isn’t comfort, though: it’s treating human beings like, well, human beings. This is not something that capitalism is particularly good at. Capitalism wants to treat us all like average-sized, average-feeling, average-thinking, average-desiring people. The goal of capitalism isn’t to give us exactly what we want and need. It’s to give us a rough approximation of what we want and need for the lowest possible cost. That’s both the source of its undeniable strength and the reason everyone, deep down, to some degree, wants to resist it. Or, perhaps, fling a few angry birds toward it. Watch it start to crumble.
Theater seats, we have to admit this, are often as restrictive as airline seats. (They aren’t, at the very least, known for comfort.) The legroom in certain theaters I frequent is painfully limited; I fidget throughout every performance, rush to the lobby immediately at intermission (when there is an intermission), and offer a few more standing ovations than might technically be warranted in order to get up a few seconds earlier when the show’s finally over. We build our theaters this way for obvious reasons, of course—notably, to my mind, because that’s how it’s done. Why should we innovate architecturally, after all? We aren’t architects.
But we are, I think, experience architects, or we should be. Broadly speaking, we create experiences for people. Most of us typically confine our creativity (largely) to the stuff that happens on the stage—with a bit of effort left over for lobby decorations and marketing—but we don’t necessarily have to. We could, if we wanted to, reinvent anything and everything all the time. Even the seats: we could stack chairs of many different sizes in our lobbies, for example, and invite people to choose whatever seat suits them and bring it into the theater. A clumsy and imperfect idea, perhaps, but you get the drift, right? Radical hospitality’s architectural cousin.
Too few of us have the stomach to implement changes like that, which used to make me really frustrated. I would stew about every big theater I know and the various alternative programs they weren’t implementing. I would think about all the resources they had at their disposal, and all the things I’d change if I had those resources, and become (in my mind) a really angry bird. (Dynamic pricing? I’d fling a green boomerang bird at that one. All-male-playwright seasons? The pink bird, surely.) I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to will things to be different and shouting from the outside when they weren’t. It wasn’t particularly rewarding.
And then, in time, a few of those institutions I railed against lured me into their ranks. I was invited to join the Dramatists Guild as its DC representative. I was asked to serve as a member of the board of governors for the Helen Hayes Awards. As a writer, I started to land bigger and bigger productions at large theaters; I recently signed with a theatrical agent, too. It all felt, and continues to feel, more than a bit uncomfortably like joining the establishment. But I told myself—and still tell myself—that I’ll try to change the system from within. The early results, though, have been decidedly mixed.
“Why did those pigs take our eggs, daddy?” This is the question my son asks me, from time to time, while we’re playing the game. He says our eggs instinctively, as if he believes something valuable that belongs to us has been stolen. The narrative experience of the game works on him very effectively.
I think many of us working in the theater feel like our eggs have been stolen by big institutions: like the resources of our community—everything from big donors to 501(c)3 tax credits to volunteer labor—have all been co-opted by a few greedy pigs. That’s how it feels sometimes, mind you, but I’m not sure that’s how it is. I think most people working in our largest theatrical institutions do their best, achieve splendid things, and have nothing but generous intentions in their hearts.
Are resources evenly distributed throughout the theater ecosystem? Certainly not. Are they fairly distributed? Not to my mind. Are they optimally distributed to achieve the greatest good? I don’t think so, either. But I think there’s more lethargy and inertia behind how things are structured than overt evil.
“I want those eggs back,” my son says, and I tell him they aren’t our eggs: they belong to the birds. “Daddy, get those eggs,” he insists, and for my own comfort I have to remind him that it’s just a game, nothing more, and that the game isn’t real. This is true of the sense of scarcity we all feel in the American theater, too: it’s not real. Striving for success in that fictional system? It’s just a game, and I’m tired of playing. I’m tired of flinging birds at big theaters. That’s not the kind of artist I want to be. That’s not how I want to spend my life. And that’s not the kind of role model I want to be for my son.
This is why, in recent years, I’ve devoted myself to building things instead of tearing things down. I’m not flinging birds like I used to; I’m constructing replacements for the scarcity game. Take the New Play Exchange: it’s an alternative way to connect plays and producers that could, in time, replace the entire broken play submission infrastructure. Or think about The Welders: it’s an alternative platform for play development and production erected completely out of generosity and good will rather than gatekeepers and bureaucracy. Even the plays I’m writing are resisting traditional forms. I have no idea what, over the next few decades of my career as an artist, they are going to become. It’s completely exhausting, all of this, but it’s absolutely thrilling.
You see, these are my airplane daydreams coming true. I am building the seat I want to sit in, rather than waiting for the airline to give one to me—or, rather, making the world I want to live in while I’m still living in (and making the best I can out of) the world I inherited. And that, finally, is really want I desperately want my son to learn from me. That’s how I want us to connect. That’s what I want him to do better than me, even, down the road, because the world I leave him assuredly won’t be good enough for him, either. It would make me immeasurably proud.