History Repeats Itself And Is Redundant, Too

I was starting to write up a draft of a press release for a show we will be doing in the Spring, First Person: Seeing America. Probably the best way to describe it is as a live documentary. When you watch a documentary or a show on the History Channel, old photographs often appear on screen while music plays under a narration to create a mood. In First Person: Seeing America, all these elements are present live.

NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) and and actress Lily Knight read and dramatize the words of Abraham Lincoln, Langston Hughes, Damon Runyan, John Muir, Frederick Douglass, Calamity Jane and others, while accompanied by chamber music quintet Ensemble Galilei. Photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection including Matthew Brady, Walker Evans, WeeGee, Edward Stieglitz and Thomas Eakins are projected behind them.

It really looks like a terrific show. But since no one has really seen anything like it before, my challenge has been trying to briefly describe it in terms people will understand and be intrigued by. I actually struck on talking about it as a live documentary while a guest on an NPR fund drive in October and that has seemed to work pretty well.

While I was writing today, it suddenly struck me that history has sort of come around again and the basic premise of this show is pretty timely. What else is the popularity of social media but an interest in the first person accounting of others’ lives? Granted, most people will have more interest in the lives of those they know than historical figures. I am not sure how much traction I will get referring to Frederick Douglass as an original tweeter or blogger.

Still, at one time keeping a journal was something a person did. While the motivation for doing so now is less for personal reflection and more for public consumption, the practice has returned. Perhaps it is time for arts and literature people to harness that impulse and direct the general populace toward refining their approach. I know that there are people already doing a fine job using these tools to express themselves creativity through video, music and writing, but I have an intuitive sense that the practice has yet to reach its full maturity.

I am well aware that in all likelihood the proportion of quality writing to dreck has probably remained constant throughout history. For every Langston Hughes, there have been 99 people dashing off junk. You have to wonder though if in 100 years there will be people mining blog and tweet archives to put a similar show together bearing witness to our lives.

So much pressure to be a poignant and inspiring representative of my time!

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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