The Horton Lens
Remember Horton? The elephant who, while splashing in a pool in the Jungle of Nool, hears a voice coming from a speck of dust? The voice, belonging to the Mayor of the speck-of-dust-city of Whoville, asks Horton to protect them from harm. Horton agrees and as a result suffers increasingly vicious ridicule at hands of the other jungle animals. Tied up, caged and facing a boiling vat of Beezlenut Oil, Horton fears he can no longer protect the Whos. He pleads with them to make a big noise, but despite the Whos’ cries of We are here! We are here! We are here! the animals hear nothing. Finally the Mayor finds a “very small shirker named JoJo” whose voice finally “puts it over,” affirming that, as Horton says, “a person’s a person, no matter how small” and winning over the jungle animals who vow to join him protecting the Whos.
What does this have to do with Theater? As far as I’m concerned, quite a lot. In fact, Horton has become something of a touchstone for me, revealing much of what we lack in the American Theater, but also reminding me of what we have the potential to be.
I first started looking at theater through the lens of Horton Hears A Who! at the 2006 Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. I was sitting on stage moderating a discussion of Go Home Now by Judy Anderson. The setting and concern of the play was a town very much like the one I was in: McCall, Idaho. Like many communities, it was struggling with the loss of a large employer, a cross-generational identity crisis, and war vets who were increasingly coming home to a town they hardly recognized.
As per our usual process, the director and dramaturg talked a bit about the work they’d done that week and I turned the floor over to the audience for questions, comments and observations. Reactions during the play had been strong, even vocal, and our talkbacks were usually quite lively. This one was remarkably quiet. But as I sat on stage in the seeming silence I could have sworn I heard something, faint but insistent, in the collective rise and fall of their breath laced with the occasional shift or sniffle: we are here, we are here, we are here.
At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. The play was compelling, it was moving, it was engaging. I couldn’t believe these people had nothing to say! But in talking to audience members after the fact, I realized that what left them speechless was not a direct response to the ideas or emotions of the play; it was something more intimate—and as a result more difficult to talk about. It seemed to me that play had done something very right… but what? Recalling the chanting Whos of Whoville, I picked up Horton and began to read.
Horton is not an Artist
I started my investigation assuming Horton was like a playwright with something urgent to tell us, something no one else could see. But I quickly realized that Horton is not a generative artist. The playwright (or generative artist) is the very small Who in Fairbanks Apartments 12-J: Jo-Jo. In the book, Jo-Jo is described as a shirker but what artist hasn’t been called a shirker—by family members, or society, or on a bad day by oneself?
What’s really interesting about Jo-Jo is that he doesn’t save the Whos by adding his voice to the chorus of those shouting, “We’re here we’re here we’re here.” Jo-Jo says “YOPP!” which is not really a word at all. Jo-Jo does what a playwright, or any generative artist, does—he distills our here-ness into something essential and draws attention to it in a different way. This, it seems to me, is what the audience at Judy’s reading was experiencing: a connection to something so essential that in that moment it was more important for them to stay with that connection, than to talk about the particulars of the play that got them there.
Of course there are a million other things we could say about Jo-Jo’s situation—he’s locked in his apartment yo-yoing away while all the flashy Whos outside are yapping and yipping and making a ruckus to no avail, and the Mayor is dashing around like a crazy Who looking for someone louder and flashier to put them over the top. When the Mayor finds Jo-Jo he’s not making a sound at all, “Not a yipp! Not a chirp!” Of course what’s a play sitting on the page? You’ve got to pick the thing up!
We Are Here!
It’s no mistake that we remember, “We Are Here!” rather than “Yopp!” Take the audience at Judy’s reading for example: I felt them chanting “We Are Here.” The play didn’t create the need for the “We are here.” It was already there. The play served as the “Yopp!” that somehow broke the seal and allowed the “We Are Here” to be felt by the audience, and heard by me.
In fact, if you look at the book, the Whos are saved when the jungle animals hear… what? We actually don’t know what they hear. Is it the “Yopp!” or the “We Are Here”—it doesn’t matter—they get it.
Jo-Jo does what a playwright, or any generative artist, does—he distills our here-ness into something essential and draws attention to it in a different way.
The “Yopp!” that ultimately saves the Whos not only enables them to be seen, it connects them to the world in a new way. But it doesn’t do it by telling the Whos who they are, or how they could express themselves better, nor does it try to explain Whos to the outside world. It reveals the Whos both to themselves and the world. In playwriting I’ve come to think of the “Yopp!” as a mirror that reflects an image back at itself, and out into the world at the same time.
I see a lot of plays that seek to illuminate, without reflecting—plays I find preachy or “educational” or even worse—“important.” They advise me about some person or situation I should care about (because a person is a person no matter how small). But I end up feeling as if I’ve spent the evening listening to an elephant insist that there are people on the precious little flower he holds without hearing nary a “Yopp!”
I also see a lot of plays that reflect, but do not illuminate, including what some of my non-New York friends refer to as those “New Yorky” plays. These plays tend to reflect a certain way of life or thinking that allows a particular population to feel validated—but at the end of the day it’s all preaching to the choir. It’s not terribly illuminating to agree with oneself, and it usually comes across as shallow and disconnected to anybody else. Of course, there are plenty of non-New Yorky plays that fall into this category—New Yorky plays are just an easy target.
Horton Can’t Make Us Hear the Whos
This shouldn’t be surprising. Remember your teacher telling you that you’re supposed to appreciate music or art? Easy to agree to in principle, but if the music or art or theater you’re witnessing doesn’t do it for you, than pulling the hair of the kid in front of you just seems a heck of a lot more entertaining. The truth is, until you hear the “Yopp!” for yourself, none of it really sticks. And this is part of what makes the “Yopp!” tricky and so magical and necessary. Without that “Yopp!” we artistic types become increasingly useless and foolish and eventually the rest of the animals in the jungle will steal our beautiful little puff-ball of Whos and boil it in a steaming kettle of Beezle-Nut oil.
Convincing the Kangaroo
I have various theories about who the other animals in the book represent—audiences, funders, board members, politicians—but what is most interesting to me is that once they hear the “Yopp!” they don’t just believe in Whos, they are transformed. The kangaroo even commits to protecting Horton and the Whos! The Whos haven’t proven themselves to be particularly entertaining, nor have they made any kind of convincing logical argument that the rest of the jungle should appreciate them. The “Yopp!” doesn’t ask for their sympathy, or lecture the other animals, or even suggest to them what they should do. And Horton doesn’t suggest to them how they should understand it or why it’s important either; they just get it.
So What Have We Learned?
If I take Whoville to be a puffy flower full of artists, I see a small, tightly knit community that knows how to talk to itself at a certain level, and knows how to make a lot of noise, but hasn’t found a sensible way to search out and raise up the Jo-Jo’s and other artists standing just over the threshold of some long-neglected, perhaps very plain, door.
If I look at Whoville as a community beyond my own, I see a jungle full of patrons who are deservedly tired of being preached at by some gigantic do-gooder dromedary. The other jungle-dwellers want this big dope to snap out of it—the world has real problems, and here he is “chatting with people who’ve never existed” (hmmm, sounds suspiciously like theater).
If I look at myself, as Artistic Director, I see that my job is to create a situation in which the audience can hear the artist—but that they essentially have to be talking to each other. I can’t tell them what they should hear. In fact, I have to do everything in my power to find the voice that can be heard. I see that “educating” the audience isn’t a magic bullet; too often we blame the audience for not hearing our fabulous ruckus, when the truth is we simply aren’t providing the “Yopp!” they need.
As a playwright, it’s easy to see oneself as Jo-Jo; on one hand ignored, neglected, and banished to a lonely room with his yo-yo, and on the other allowing oneself to be defeated or (even worse) retreating to that room like a petulant child because no one is looking at me. There is no easy answer for Jo-Jo.
If Whoville is the world of my play, I find it most useful to cast myself as Horton, the Mayor, and Jo-Jo all wrapped into one. As much as the Horton in my play may have some idea about what I want to say, or what I hope people will hear, I have to resist the urge to speak from that place. As the Mayor, I have to resist the urge to reach into my bag of tricks—looking for what I think will get someone’s attention—and I have to listen when the Horton in me cries out, “I believe in you,” and just keep opening doors until I find the right one. And like Jo-Jo, I have to keep myself inside the Whoville of my work.
Returning to Judy, it is disheartening to report that Judy’s play has never had a production outside of McCall (she self-produced it the following year in the local community theater). But perhaps there is a lesson for us in this as well. Judy is the quintessential Jo-Jo of the American Theater: a high school drama teacher and mother of six, in her sixties living in McCall, Idaho, far from urban opportunities, no MFA, no Facebook page or Twitter account. From afar it’s easy to dismiss her as a failed professional artist or an amateur, rather than seeing her as a wise and seasoned storyteller with some serious “Yopp” who has spent her life making theater a vibrant and necessary part of her community’s cultural landscape.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts to get anyone to even read her play, Judy decided that, “nobody cares what is happening to us.” I couldn’t argue with her. It’s a sentiment that many communities feel and not without good reason. But the truth is more complex. We do care. The Artistic Mayors of every Whoville in the country are desperate to find the Who who’s Yopp will put them over the top.
At some level, yes, theater is a business, but it is one that depends on being able to deliver the “Yopp!” that is needed, not the prettiest Yip, or the flashiest Yap, or the Bip that everyone is talking about, and I can’t help but wonder sometimes if we’re so busy running around telling every Who with a horn to make bigger, more impressive noise that we’ve lost track of what we’re looking for—and what’s at stake if we don’t find it.