What It Means to Be Human

Okay, so I am in the middle of writing calendar listings and season brochure material trying to avoid falling into a boring writing style as pointed out by Greg Sandow and which I later commented on

I think I am doing fairly well, but time will tell and I may be too close to my own stuff. One of my other rules besides trying to avoid being boring is to also keep from quoting reviewers. I have seen so many people quoted saying “Fantastic”, “A must see”, “Best show of the season”, etc, etc, that I doubt the persuasive power of such quotes. Besides, it seems like inserting such quotes means you can’t think of enough interesting things to say about it on your own. Since I am trying to get into the practice of generating interesting things out of my own feeble brain, that is just another reason to avoid quoting folks.

On the other hand I was tempted to include a quote from a Pittsburgh paper that called a Dayton Dance Company’s performance “rollicking, lyrical, athletic and emotionally generous quartet of African-American dances” It was the emotionally generous part that caught my eye. I don’t frequently see that applied to people in reviews.

One thing I want to know though–when did being human become a selling point for a show? I constantly see (and I was guilty of it many times myself) people describe shows in terms of things that make us human or remind us of the human condition or celebrate what it is to be human. Andrew Taylor recently commented that people seldom go to the theatre simply because it will raise the SAT scores of kids in the neighborhood. Considering some pregnant women put headphones on their stomachs so that their forming child can be exposed to Mozart, I think there is a greater likelihood of folks deciding to support the arts for that reason than because they have lost touch with what it means to be human.

Now granted there are plenty of people out there who probably need to be reminded what it means to be human. However, I doubt anyone admits they need to be exposed to such stuff.

Again, I think this is a nebulous catch-all term people use out of laziness. It sounds impressive, but it really doesn’t mean much. I have seen it applied to some shows to refer to poignant moments, applied to others in connection with joy and familal bonds of love, and I have seen it applied to shows with incredible violence, hatred, pain and sorrow. You never know what you are going to get if you go to a “what it means to be human” show.

Yes, all these things are part of human existence, but it is much better to say poignant or violent. The problem is, using the term doesn’t help audiences understand art any better than they did when they arrived. It strikes me that this phrase is part of the alienating language the arts tend to use. I am not saying that language should be dumbed down–I am a big believer in people picking up dictionaries and teaching themselves. I am using phrases like “transient state” in my season brochure. Except in this case, the phrase very specifically describes a transformation which is occuring. (and I didn’t want to repeat the word transformation in the description.)

I won’t lie. This is hard. Even with all the practice I have writing about different issues, it is difficult to write something that accurately depicts a performance without falling back on newspaper quotes and important sounding, but empty phrases. This being my first weeks at a new job, there are plenty of other things I could really be spending my time on. But trying to do this well, even if I am not entirely successful, is important to developing my ability to communicate well with audiences.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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