I scheduled this post to be published at precisely 11:11 am on 11/11/10. If I could have set it up to go live 11 seconds later, I would have. This was the best I could do.
I know there are going to be people in various places noting this numerological coincidence. (I have a feeling that at the very least, the folks at 11:11 Theatre Company will have something to say about it.) The roar will undoubtedly be even more deafening this time next year, just as it was about a month ago at 10:10 am (and pm) on October 10, 2010. In advance of that collective “whoa,” I simply felt I had to add a small contrary voice: please, for goodness’ sake, just ignore the whole thing.
It’s a meaningless coincidence. There are countless similar coincidences all around the all the time. You know what’s even more amazing, though? The staggeringly large number of coincidences that don’t happen, day after day. You mention an old friend to your mother while you’re doing your grocery shopping, and then when you walk out the door a few minutes later… that old friend doesn’t happen to be there in the parking lot. It’s your dog’s birthday, so you go out to the store to buy Fido his favorite (but rather expensive) treat… and three other treats have just gone on sale. I could go on, but the list of non-examples is endless: a far, far greater number of non-coincidences happen than coincidences. Given a moderate understanding of statistics, the fact that coincidences do sometimes happen should be utterly unsurprising. It’s bound to happen.
The only reason we notice them at all is that our brains are evolutionarily hard-wired to notice patterns. Noticing patterns is what helped us survive and cooperate and haul our way up from the grasslands of our species’ infancy. That’s it. Good for us… but let’s not take it too far.
This is precisely the same mechanism that inclines young playwrights toward deus ex machina endings and stock characters and clichés. Playwrights who rely on devices like those are doing the dramatic equivalent of saying “Hey, look—almost all of the numbers in today’s date are ones!” They’ve fixated on certain patterns—patterns with no inherent significance—and are letting them stand in the place of real meaning.
So don’t pay today’s date any real heed, and don’t watch bad theater. Neither are worth your time.
My post today has inspired a response from my good friend David Loehr, which you really ought to read before continuing. No, I’m not afraid to link to a dissenting opinion. Jeez, Louise! This is the internet. Now, go on, go read it, then come back.
Okay, so… it seems I’ve made a bit of a hash of things with my post. I might as well admit that up front. I’ve conflated concepts that I ought not to have conflated so cavalierly. But I shall press on.
Evolutionarily, we are adapted to recognize patterns, as I’ve said. This has been a skill that conveyed survival benefits, because recognizing patterns has helped us survive when those patterns convey useful information (such as when a certain cloud formation is a good predictor of a storm), which they do not always do. Recognizing patterns is not, to be clear, a higher-order skill: it’s instinctive. Analysis of those patterns, determining whether they contain meaning, THAT is a higher-order skill.
A side effect of our species being hard-wired to recognize patterns is that we get a slight positive neural sensation from doing it: the evolutionary equivalent of an “Atta boy” or “You go, girl.” Not a big reward, but enough to make it feel modestly good. This is the joy or beauty—the “rainbow”—that my friend talks about in his post.
Frankly, though, I think a much better comparison than a rainbow, however, is a piece of candy. We’re also hard-wired to find and eat as much sugar as possible, too — but that’s because our species evolved in a world in which sugar was a scarce, precious source of calories. In the world we live in now, sugar is plentiful, and our hard-wiring works against us in the worst of ways. The only thing keeping us from eating ourselves into oblivion is the higher-order thinking that allows us to say “Hey, maybe this isn’t a great idea” and “Let’s put nutrition labels on things” and “I vote we we take those Coke machines out of the schools.”
It is the same with our hard-wiring to recognize patterns. They were few and far between when our species was born, and often very subtle… but in the last two hundred years or so, patterns have overtaken our daily experience. We live in a highly-patterned world. As a result, what we need desperately is to be shocked OUT of our patterned complacency, lest we overdose on the mild satisfaction they give us… the side effect of which is an obese, flabby mind.
If a pattern has meaning—the iron filings lining up in the presence of the magnet, to use one of my friend’s examples—by all means, we should investigate and understand it. But we must—it is essential—always be skeptical of patterns. Many are meaningless, as he and I both agree, and many yield counter-intuitive conclusions, too; it sure does look like the sun revolves around the Earth, for example, if you only consider that it rises and sets in the same places every day… but as we all know, that isn’t the case.
Now, to bring this back to playwriting…
My first contention here is that young playwrights make the mistake of relying on stock characters, canned plots, and clichés because they are simply following the patterns they have seen in other plays. This is not, I believe, a good thing; it is a thing to be outgrown. It is, however, as my other friend Liz Maestri has noted in the comments, exactly the way young playwrights are taught to make plays, and with that I have no complaint. The best way to learn IS by imitation… as long as we’re all clear that the eventual goal is revelation instead.
My second contention here is that plays that rely on stock characters, etc.—pattern pieces, I’ll call them—are inferior to plays that don’t. David Loehr points to the long-running play Shear Madness as an example of just this sort of thing. What he finds delightful — what many people find delightful, I will concede—I consider somewhat light, personally, as do (I believe) most of the theater practitioners I know who’ve appeared in the play. (That list is long.) I mean, I do like candy now and then—and who among us does not?—but it isn’t why I learned how to cook, so to speak, and I don’t think it’s why David Loehr learned to cook, either.
My personal preferences, however, must be kept separate from what I think is right and good. Again, there’s a reason Shear Madness continues to sell gobs and gobs of tickets, so people do like it. Why, though? I believe they like it because it appeals to our hard-wired pattern-recognition system, nothing more. They sit in the theater, recognizing one pattern after another and feeling mildly rewarded for doing so. It’s “Hey, look, it’s 11:11!” over and over again. This is not going to get us anywhere as a species. If that’s all we do, in fact, we’re going to die out.