Why Theater? Why Not?

by Debra Caplan

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

As a scholar of Yiddish theater, I’m often asked why I do what I do. Yiddish has the false reputation of being a dying language (in fact, the number of Yiddish speakers is actually is on the rise). “Why Yiddish?” ask friends, relatives, colleagues.

But as many wise Yiddish scholars before me have answered, perhaps the more worthwhile question to ask isn’t “why Yiddish?” but rather “why not?” That is to say, instead of asking “why care about Yiddish?”, we might instead pose the question: why don’t more people care? And what do we lose when Yiddish is no longer in the picture?

Perhaps we can apply this same sort of thinking to the way that we teach, discuss, and advocate for the theater (another supposedly “dying” cultural artifact). After all, the rhetoric of imminent decline used to describe the present state of Yiddish and the stage aren’t all that far apart. Yiddish speakers have worried about the imminent demise of their language almost from its very inception. Likewise, as David Mamet tells us, “the theater’s always dying.” Yiddish and the theater may continue to “die” in our collective imagination for a long time to come, but in the meantime, neither looks like its going anywhere.

So why not Yiddish? And for that matter, why not theater?

Why not? What do we lose if we allow ourselves to confirm these arenas of cultural production to the rubbish bin of history? What do we gain when as a society we choose, instead, to care?

Like Sara Farrington, another blogger in this TCG series, I teach theater in the City University of New York system, at Baruch College. We’re known for our business school, not nursing, but our student body is fairly similar to Sara’s at the College of Staten Island. Our students often take five courses while working full-time at one or even two jobs. They often have young children of their own or sick relatives to care for. Many experience housing instability; some are homeless. Nothing is a given. Time and money are precious resources that few are able to spare.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that every semester, roughly 30-40% of the students who enroll in my Introduction to Theater course (Baruch requires that every student, regardless of major, take one arts course before graduating) have never been to the theater. Of the others, many have never experienced professional theater, and only a small percentage have seen more than two plays in their lives.

Why not? I ask on the first day of class. Everyone speaks up at once.

Theater is too expensive, they say. We can’t afford it.  Too many bills to pay.  We don’t know how to find out about it. We don’t know what to see. There’s just not enough time. Between work and school and caring for family, we’re maxed out. When we have time for ourselves, we want to relax. There’s so many rules at the theater. How do you not check Facebook or text your friends for two hours? It sounds restrictive. Plus, once you’re there, you’re locked in. You can’t change the channel if you don’t like it.

This class will teach you how to navigate the New York theater scene, I tell them. I’ll show you how to find affordable tickets to great shows. You’ll get credit in this course for attending productions, so you can devote some time to it as part of your schoolwork. You might enjoy not looking at your smartphone for a few hours more than you think.

The students nod, but they remain skeptical.

The first time I taught this class, the conversation went on in this vein for a solid half hour before a quiet freshman spoke up hesitantly: “I’ve never been to the theater because I never thought it was meant for me.”

There are nods of recognition from around the lecture hall. Emboldened, the student continued: “Nobody in my family or in my community goes to the theater. When I see people coming out of the theater, I don’t feel like I belong there. Old people go to the theater, white people go to the theater, rich people go to the theater, but not people like me.”

Silence. I had no easy answer.

I realized that this feeling of not belonging would be the biggest hurdle for my students to overcome. They did not see theater as something that could possibly belong to them. Theater was something for other people, at a different stage of life than my students, with more resources at their disposal.

I was reminded of a (somewhat tasteless) joke that someone once told me about Yiddish. A person is born, the joke goes, without any language at all. As he gets older, he learns to walk and talk (English, of course). He starts school, makes friends, grows up, goes to college, sees the world, gets a job, gets married, buys a house, and starts a family of his own. He gets a promotion, the children get older and start their own families, and he begins to prepare for retirement. Life is good. But one day, he goes to the doctor and finds out that he has incurable cancer. “I’m sorry, but you only have six months to live,” says the doctor. “You’d better start speaking Yiddish.”

The punch line? Yiddish is a dying language for the dying. So, why Yiddish?

Theater, my students told me, belongs only to the rich, white, and old. So, why theater? What attraction could it possibly hold for them?

Better still: why not?

Over the course of the semester, every student in this class attended three productions of their choice across the city. The assignment was to write a review of each production. Without my asking them to do so, nearly every student wrote about the conversation that first day, about their feelings around theater and belonging:

“When I walked into the theater, I really didn’t feel like I belonged, but….”
“I didn’t see anyone my age/race/nationality/who looked like me, but…”
“I never imagined that I would enjoy theater, but…”

And so on.

At the end of the semester, I asked each student to write a letter to a friend or relative who had never been to the theater explaining what theater is and what it’s like to experience it. None of my students had trouble choosing a recipient – everyone knew someone who had never been to the theater.

Not surprisingly, the letters were all about belonging. But this time, as the students told their parents, relatives, and friends, they felt like they belonged.

Debra Caplan is an Assistant Professor of Theatre in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, City University of New York. Her writing about Yiddish theater has appeared in Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, New England Theatre Journal, Comparative Drama, Pakn Treger: The Magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center, and American Theatre Magazine. She is also a dramaturg, director, and translator for the stage, and was most recently Season Dramaturg for a two-year Yiddish theater series at Target Margin Theater.