I have been fascinated lately by the way my two year-old son reads some of his books.
It’s not as though he never wants to read them in the manner we’d all call typical. You know: you read the words on one page, scan the pictures, turn to the next page, read the words, scan the pictures, back and forth, and so on. It’s just that very often, even with a book he’s not familiar with, he’d rather simply jump willy-nilly between different details in the images, saying various sentences aloud that he seems to think ought to go with those images.
Then he’ll ask me what one or two words mean, or pause long enough for me to read whatever’s written on the page, or stop to ask a question about something, or crack a two year-old’s joke, before moving on… or, sometimes, before moving backward to read the last page again. Or three pages forward. Or to the back cover. There’s no rhyme or reason, save for the logic of his desire.
In essence, the book is raw material to him. There’s no expectation of linearity, no conformity with the terms laid out by the book’s author and publisher, or even by it’s very page-by-page-between-two-covers structure. He doesn’t respect the story. He doesn’t care about the story. He turns the story into whatever he wants it to be. He tells his own story.
It must be said, of course, that he doesn’t realize he’s doing it “wrong.” Naturally, he has no idea what he’s missing: the incredible liberation and transformation of giving oneself over utterly to someone else’s narrative. But he’s no less enthusiastic about books. In fact, he’s generally mad about books. He “reads” every single day, several times a day. He doesn’t even watch television. It’s not that we won’t let him, mind you, it’s just that he isn’t at all interested. He would much rather read a new book.
How much do you read? Are you that passionate? You, an adult (presumably) who knows how books are “supposed” to be read? When was the last time you completely dominated a book, making it fully your own, reading it (or mis-reading it?) in your own way. He’s got something we definitely don’t have.
Or do we? Maybe it’s still there, half-dormant. Maybe we see remnants of it in the way we wander through a museum without paying much heed to the neatly-ordered galleries. (I know I’ve caught myself more than once spotting a painting three rooms away and heading straight for it, even if I haven’t finished admiring the collection I’m looking at.) Or maybe it’s there in the way we sometimes treat the car radio: changing channels at the slightest provocation, sometimes singing over the songs, turning the volume up and down to control the experience. Or the way we surf the web: deciding which sites to visit, which links to click, which videos to play, which ads to look away from, which fields to fill out with our own personal content… like the field on my blog software that I’m filling out right now as I write this, for example.
So… what would theater be like if we made it for people to interact with like that? My son sometimes goes to see shows at Imagination Stage that are designed expressly for his age group. He really loves them. He gets to walk on the stage, do things, pay attention when he wants to, ignore the show when he doesn’t want to, stand up, sit down, talk, sing. And the performers just keep on rolling. What if we made theater like that sometimes, except for adults?
I think it might all end up looking just a bit like SLEEP NO MORE, don’t you? Immersive experiences in which you can wander — catching bits of story if you want to, but also perhaps making up your own stories along the way. Then again, we all know MACBETH, so we aren’t walking into that experience without at least some context. You can hand my son any new book whatsoever and he’ll start doing exactly the same thing he might do with an old favorite: whatever the heck he wants to do. (In fact, that’s how he behaves when you hand him anything. Would that we all had such freshness in our capacity! Though it might get wearying to live that way all the time.) So perhaps we’d need to tell new stories in a similar way to get closer to my son’s experience.
I’d like to be able to try making something like that. The truth is, though, I have no idea how I’d go about it. I know I couldn’t do it alone. I’d need to be part of a devising ensemble of some kind. (Wait… I am.) And it would have to be the right idea. (Hmm… I have a few of those, I think.) And it would probably take a great deal of time. (There I come up empty.) But I’d sure like to try.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep on reading with my son. It’s one of our best things — that and constructing dream buildings and impossible vehicles with Lego blocks — and I really love it. It’s never the same experience twice.