On Saturday night, as part of the Piedmont Laureate program, I joined a number of other North Carolina writers in greeting people as they entered the North Carolina State University Theater to see two wonderful mystery-related shows, The Hollow and Something’s Afoot. What a wonderful experience it was to see groups of people entering the lobby, their faces animated with the expectation that they were soon to see something new. Even better, I was able to meet and talk with many of them, introducing them to the writers there so they could learn more about their books. I was struck by how engaged the theatergoers all seemed, as well as by the diversity of the crowd — people of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds, all there to share in the experience of live theater. They brought good-humored curiosity to meeting the authors waiting for them and it was wonderful to see one new connection after another being made. A number of people had their children in tow. I wanted to throw my arms around those parents and thank them for making sure that at least some young people grew up understanding the joy of being a part of the arts.
"It's just such a different feeling," one dapper gentleman told me. "You are part of something volatile and alive. Each show is a different experience from the one before." He remembered a show he had seen at the theater a few seasons before where, when the actor bowed, his wig flew off and skittered across the stage. "You just never know what will happen!" he said happily.
Was he in search of cultural enrichment? No. I think he just wanted to feel alive and be more than a sack of meat and bone staring, slack-jawed and drooling, at a flickering screen.
The theatergoers were a great crowd to talk to about reading. Most of them were devoted readers and eager to meet new authors and take a look at the books we write. They wanted to talk about ideas, they were open to making new friends, and they seem relaxed and at ease with themselves. There was a camaraderie in the lobby, a sort of shared acknowledgment that everyone there had something in common and that it was okay to drop the suspicion that is so easy to adopt towards strangers these days.
We need a nation of people like this. I am convinced that people who get up off their couches and head out to see theater, or attend author readings, or enjoy an arts performance of any kind, end up being less afraid of the world, less affected by the histrionic messages that pour into our homes via media, bringing fear and hostility and that persistent sense of vague doom that relentless news reports and shares of those reports can create. It is so easy to get caught up in the constant stimulation of one outrage or disaster after another that I think we sometimes forget to be a participant in the world, rather than simply a watcher of it.
I wish we could find more ways to get people out of their homes and out to arts performances. I wish we could convince more people to turn off their televisions and skip the shopping mall and take a chance on a music or theater experience, or meeting an author, or viewing a new painting or photography show, or seeing once and for all what modern dance is all about. All of these art forms are, at their heart, a form of expression and simply being there, to witness that expression, shows a respect for other people and that makes the world a better place.
So please join me in vowing to be a more active participant in what is somewhat demeaningly called "culture" these days. Be one of those happy, engaged people in the world. Be one of those people with open minds who seek out the unexpected. Be one of those people who would rather see something they don't understand than sit on a couch and watching a television show they already know the inevitable ending to. Go ahead and buy those season tickets. Go ahead and invite a friend to the next show. And if you have kids, take them to the theater, to the art gallery, to a dance performance. Let them see for themselves how much richer life can be when it doesn't come at you through an electronic screen.