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.

Horton hears a who book cover
Horton Hears a Who! cover.
Photo by Wikipedia. 

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.

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Okay, one more and then like summer I will drift into the sunset. I just know I didn't answer the most important part of Kirk's question (got tired and that makes me kind of preachy - don't want to leave it there).

How does my passion to support new plays lead me to my audience? Or to my plays?

I didn't really go into Seven Devils thinking that we would have this kind of deep relationship. It was really over time - and through a lot of listening - that I learned that my passion for new plays and my passion for the audience were very much the same: that I was just as interested in the conversation about a play as I was in the play itself. For me a new play can only really work if it reaches an audience (the art, for me, happens somewhere in that magic space between the play and the audience). So without the audience, it just doesn't make any sense. That's why the audience is part of the process for us - until they come in we really don't know what we've got or how it is really functioning.

id's mission is plays that embrace the diversity of the American experience, so by definition we're not looking for community specific plays. I love those plays, they just aren't what we're looking for.

This can be a big range of stuff. For example, a play that folks loved was VEILS by Tom Coash - a two-hander set at the American University in Cairo with two characters, an African American Muslim woman and an Egyptian woman who were making a video about their VEILS. This is a totally white community, with no Muslims - but the play really hit a note because at bottom it was about these two women who really love each other as friends, but then discover that their beliefs put them at odds. At the talkback people talked about their relationships with friends of different denominations - these women felt a lot like them. They also really connected to the American woman trying to understand the middle east and how that life is different from our own and how it's the same. Yes they learned a lot about veils - but it was through their connection to the characters. So just give that an example of what an American play means.

When we give readers plays I just tell them to look for the plays they need to see. On a personal level. That also can mean a lot of things. Not plays that will be successful, or that are for this audience, or that are written by great writers (sometime they have those elements) but I've found that if I look for what I need to see, then I'm on the right road.

Thanks for all the lively discussion!

So I'm starting a new train here because the space is getting very narrow!

But referring to Kirk's post below - First, thanks Kirk for your generosity and wisdom. So inspirational! I was actually really struck by some of the similarities in the way our companies interact with audiences. We hang out and drink and eat with our audience – after every reading we invite the audience to join us the local bar that stays open late for us during the Conference (they close when we’re done) - and it's always a great mix of artists and audiences.

We bring 25-40 artists into the community each year, but we’re very integrated in the community – partly because we always have a mix of old hands and new faces, but also because we house everyone with local families so we really become our own community. We also do plays by students and have some local actors we work with. After eleven years we’ve come to a point where we have former high school playwrights who are now truck drivers or smoke jumpers, who come to the theater with their kids. We also wear nametags in town so we’re inviting people to talk to us anytime – and they do. We use two nights of the Conference to raise money for a local scholarship, and found an outside funder to match everything the audience raises.

I guess the biggest thing for us overall is that we really consider community members to be company members. We do everything for free because its development and the audience is a part of our process – I tell them every night: they work for us. And they take that very seriously. We always keep it focused on work: the house is always open, there are no “tickets,” folks can come to rehearsals, whatever.

Sometimes theater people will say things like “it’s nice you do talk backs, it makes the community feel involved” – and that kind of irks me because I am painfully earnest when I say that I don’t want them to “feel” involved, I NEED them to BE involved. I don’t want to educate them. I want THEM to educate me. And they have done so brilliantly. I think they have really taught me what kind of artist I want to be – and I think that in many ways that is where my passion comes from.

I’ve come to believe that people are hungry – starving – for theater, for engagement, for a feeling of belonging. If people aren’t coming to the theater, it’s not because audiences don’t get us. It’s because we don’t get them. Sure, in some ways it seems like a small shift to say – I’m here to learn from my audience, not the other way around, but the effect of that shift is huge.In many ways it takes my ego out of the picture and allows me to focus on just being grateful that the audience allows me to do this thing that I love to do.

Kirk, as always, I admire your passion and your positivity. And as I think you know by now, I look up to you as an artist and as a man. But I find your response at least a little bit insulting.

Rarely a day goes by that I don't bear witness, much less celebrate and champion, the work of my fellow artists -- many of whom are MFAs (and many of whom are not), many of whom work in New York (and many of whom do not), many of whom work in experimental forms (and many of whom do not). And personally, I do not know a soul on this earth who has been a greater witness or champion of new work than Jeni Mahoney.

None of that means squat, of course, within the context of my post. And you're right to point out that I dwelled more on the negative than the positive (I had an entire passage about my non-theater friend who was moved to tears by "Chad Deity," but I cut it out because I had already posted such a long response). Perhaps I should've included it. Perhaps I should have only focused on that. Regardless, yours is an important reminder to dwell more in abundance than scarcity, more in solution than problem, and I do thank you for that. Truly.

But I also feel like you're willing to twist what I wrote, in order to make what is intended as a heartfelt challenge and reminder to us all (including myself) sound like "sour grapes."

You say that "experimental work with jello doesn't speak to you, you question the motives." Not true. I dig experimental work and I dig jello, and I don't see why the combination wouldn't be a double-win. My point, which was perhaps lost in the glibness of my original posting, or in your rush to reduce it to my distaste for a certain kind of theater (and really, probably both) was that I felt, as an audience member, that the play asked little of me.

And when exactly did I imply that a certain artistic decision means that a theater is just out to be trendy or faddish? I simply acknowledged other factors that basically any theater professional would tell you exists, and then, again offered a reminder (and to myself as well, since I'm an ensemble member at a producing company and a resident playwright at another) to not lose sight of the "yopp" amidst all the other factors. You say that no one needs reminders; we should just assume no one ever forgets. But I know that I forget myself sometimes, and believe that reminders are good and helpful.

And personally, I think this forum is as good a place for challenges and reminders as any. Case in point - you've reminded me of my role as a witness to new work. I've tried (successfully or not) to remind us all that we have the opportunity to embrace a huge WE, when we find new and exciting ways to say, "we are here, we are here." I'm trying to make my WE even bigger, Kirk. Join me.

I will join you. I am sorry to have insulted you. I am sorry to have twisted your words. I take great impish pleasure in agreeing that we have the opportunity to embrace a huge WE. It is a both a paradoxical pun, a double entrendre, and a heartfelt challenge to which I will apprentice myself.

Mara said this more succinctly and articulately than I could, but I do feel compelled to respond.

Because I first want to apologize to Kirk, Jeremy, and anyone else, if it felt like I was implying that someone was stupid for experiencing YOPP where I didn't. I don't claim to be the greater decider of YOPP - far from it.

That said - no, Kirk - I don't know that I do have to assume that the producing organizations felt YOPP when they chose a particular play. I think we all know there are many outside factors that go into producing decision (what they think will sell tickets, whether an ensemble member was involved in creating it, whether a particular piece will help get a particular grant, etc.) and I think it's completely fair, as fellow theater artists, to engage with our colleagues (respectfully, of course) as to how a particular piece speaks to an audience beyond our little theater community.

Which brings me to my second point. Kirk, you write, "New York-y plays (whatever the fuck that means)" - but Jeni and I have both offered our own definitions. You may not agree with them, but it seems disingenuous to act like we're bandying about some ambiguous term. Just to reiterate, though, I'm talking about plays whose audience seems (to me, of course - it's an opinion, after all) to be almost entirely New York theater artists.

Now you're right to call me out, Jeremy - I do often write for my Wisconsin buddies (and to a fault, I'm sure). I'm not saying they're 'the right audience,' but what distinguishes them from NY (or Chicago or Austin or fill-in-the-blanks) theater artists is, quite simply, that they're not theater artists. And when we spend so much time talking about building audiences, isn't it fair, at least to argue that we need to create pieces that are aimed at a community bigger than ourselves?

p.s. Jeremy, Kirk's work delivers some serious YOPP for me too.

the problem is the way you determine what it means to write for a bigger community is to preference what you like. you spend more time tearing down other artists than building them up. i know more about what you think about new york-y work and the austin community than i do whatever work you love. experimental work with jello doesn't speak to you, you question the motives. a company produces 'new york-y' work, you imply that they are trying to be trendy or faddish. it sounds like sour grapes. it sounds like you imagine celebration is a limited resource. in an argument which takes Horton Hears a Who as its central metaphor it seems off key to me to be urged to doubt that others act in good faith. that the people who make, produce, and value work you do not don't really hear what they say they hear. i am moved by Jeni's passion to support a play she loves. i am moved by your desire to speak to a dear friend who works too hard for too little. i am moved by the love of the theatre in general. i am a witness to your passions here. but i am a witness to the passion of many MFAs, many plays and companies coming out of nyc, many experimental works, many celebrated playwrights. there is not a scarcity of opportunity. there are more possible solutions than there are problems in the world. we have to be open to them. as the poet Mary Oliver has written: the world offers itself to your imagination. i am in training to broaden my witness, not to shrink it so that it fits my taste. join me.

Yes, Kirk, I agree – there are solutions than problems in the world. And in that spirit, I’d love to be talking more about that. As I look back and read all the comments, what I think they reveal more than anything else is how difficult and thorny it can be to talk about things that we are passionate about without occasionally stepping on each other. At some point (where doesn’t interest me so much right now) we started to talk more about making room for ourselves than about making room for audiences who really need that Yopp, and are not finding it in the theater. I’m just as guilty as anyone else, so if there is a finger to point, I point it at myself.

You mentioned my passion for Judy’s play – and I am passionate about that play, and many other worthy plays that I fear are not getting to the people who hunger for them. But the passion that drove me to write this piece is my passion for the audience.

Kirk, it would be tremendously useful to get your thoughts on the audience and how you relate to them and understand your relationship to them. I was very fortunate to be at the Convening at Arena in February and after the session on “devised” theater I remember thinking – wow, these folks are much closer to their “why” then a lot of what we might call more traditional situations. Overall, it seems like those working in collective creation situations started from a place of asking “why are we doing this now for this group of people?” They struck me as generous and inclusive and wanting to make room – and I see that reflected in your message here.

So what if we took it from that place? From talking about opening up room – and figuring out how we make room for audiences that don’t think theater isn’t interested in them. Yes, there is an abundance of artistic food, but how to do we get it to the people that are hungry for it? I think that is something we can all get behind.

I love you. You are awesome. Thank you. That seems like a good way to start.

I think self-production is an important tool. We felt the urge to make theatre together, so we did. I mean, one of the most powerful things about theatre is that it only requires human beings. It is portable. It is affordable. It is easy. Sometimes we move away from its portability or its affordability or its ease for great reasons, but we can come back, too. Once you self-produce a lot of things are available to you. You can get into a regional institution with a show. You have this thing, the show, which you can show people, to say, ‘this is what I mean with my work.’ You don’t have to rely on people reading your or hearing you correctly. You can share resources with a larger entity. You can bring your audience with you places. And you can share your resources with even smaller entities.

There are also some simple golden rule type things. Half of our ticket inventory, generally, is pay-what-you-wish. We don’t want to make theatre that we can’t afford to see. Once we got a theatre space we wanted to make it the most affordable space in town, because it used to eat so much of our budget to rent a space. I think we are still the most affordable space (which is different than the best space). And we wanted to try to pay everybody a good wage. So the #1 concern, usually, is how much we can pay people. We can also be flexible. If I need some extra money this month because of car trouble or a bike accident, we can make that happen. Treating others as you want to be treated. From audience to artists to yourself. (It might deserve its own essay: the idea of treating yourself in a reasonable manner. Burn-out is very real. Take a break. Pay yourself. Speak with respect even when the voices are in your head.)

And there is a lot of energy in Austin around making theatre for people. Rubber Rep has been a real leader. Their Casket of Passing Fancy was one of the best shows ever. They created 500 distinct offers for the audience and then they read them out, and if you heard something you liked, you raised your hand and they did it for you, to you, with you. Everything from acts of true love to trips to Mexico. Fondling a founding father to performing a Beckett play for one individual. There is an ethic there that the work is made for a person. A way of looking at audience in its smallest divisible unit. You. There is a lot of power and risk and trouble that comes along with this experiment, but it makes available a good spirit in the community.

By and large we know our audiences by name. We hang out and drink beer. This is often built into a show, at intermission or when it is over. A culture of meeting the audience informally. Less a talkback than a hangout. I can think of shows that included dancing with the audience. Walking with the audience from the shows to their cars. Singing with the audience. Inviting the audience to make art in different ways. Most theatres, probably around the world, meet their audience through invitation. Someone loves us and wants to share that love with a new friend. They invite them along. We need to be good so that they won’t be embarrassed to have risked inviting a friend. We need to introduce ourselves to the people who come to our shows.

And there is also an ethic that I think comes from Deborah Hay. In her dance, THE MATCH she talks about making work for the experienced audience member, or some term like that. The point is, she assumes that her audiences are smart as tacks and paying attention and able to catch anything she can cook up. The audience is smarter than we are. They know more about life and relationships and joy and dancing and sex and violence than we do. This is certainly true collectively when it is not true individually. There are more of them than us. The sum total of their experience is greater than ours. We need to honor that expertise. I think this touches on your instinct to mirror rather than lecture. The mirror says, ‘you are here.’

Those are the things I can think of right now. What do they make you think of? What do you do with your audience? In what way does your mission to passionately support plays you love lead you to your audience? Or lead you to your plays?

I think you have to trust that even if you don't personally hear the YOPP in New York-y plays (whatever the fuck that means) or the plays of MFA grads or in the celebrated playwright or in the celebrated town...that the people who produce these plays, the people who celebrate these plays, the audiences who love these plays DO hear that YOPP. To suggest that your passions and attentions are focused correctly and that other people don't really hear what they think they hear places you not in the roll of Horton, but as one of those nay-sayers heating up the vat of oil. Love what you love. Love it loudly. Make me excited about it. But don't try to make me feel stupid to hear YOPPs where you can't.

I agree that everyone yopps to their own drummer. As theatre practitioners, we have to do the work we believe in -- really what else can we do when there's always more struggle than achievement, more criticism and rejection than acclaim? But the question Andrew asks -- are we writing for our communities, our country, our world… -- is valid and worthy. Examining a play through this lens allows us to ask the next,(and I think) more crucial question -- ultimately, does the piece transcend itself? Transcendence is where yopp lives, imho.

Jeni,

I can't help but feel (and correct me if I'm wrong) that underneath the playfulness of this narrative, you're sounding some serious warning bells.

That while we spend so much time, particularly on this site, discussing diversity of styles and modes of theater making, we often overlook arguably the most important element: the content itself.

Now more than ever, as so many of us are losing jobs and homes and the very certainty that things will turn around - now more than ever do we need poignant, profound, and heartfelt ways to cry out, "we are here, we are here, we are here."

But are we doing that? Are we writing for our community, our country, our world... or are we writing for our little collective of fellow theater artists? And have we become so concerned with how we say something that we've lost sight of what we're actually saying?

I recently attended a reading of a play by a (much-celebrated) writer, in which all the main characters were out-of-work NY actors who slept late and felt sorry for themselves. And I couldn't help but think of one of my best friends back in Wisconsin, who's working seventy hour weeks and struggling to keep his job and home. Is he supposed to feel a deep, resonant connection with these folks?

And I couldn't help but think of another piece I recently attended here in Austin (a much-celebrated city, especially on this site) where the show's creators asked me to do little more than stick my hand in jello and wear a pair of 3-D glasses. Was this my transformative experience? For me, the creativity of the story-telling had trumped the story being told. Or as you'd put it, Jeni - I felt like I'd missed out on some serious "Yopp."

As a theater practitioner, of course I love it when I see something that feels entirely inventive and exciting - be it a bold new voice, a wildly experimental style, or an original approach to theater making. But that's not why I go to the theater. I go for the experience you described above, that quiet moment of commonness that's shared in the audience, that thing that you don't want to shatter by racing into a talkback. And for my money, it can come from a variety of styles and approaches, but it almost almost comes from a writer, or creative team, that's dared to understand his/her community (and especially those they disagree with), that's dared to unearth the questions hidden by the answers, and above all, that's prioritized the "we" in "we are here, we are here, we are here."

My hope is that we celebrate those artists, and scrutinize the content as greatly as the style.

It took two readings to really grasp all (or at least) most of things touched on in this essay, and really liked it and was surprised at how insightful it was, and was only bothered by the end where it's apparently so bad that a play that was made in a place and was meaningful to that place didn't do so well outside that place. I'm not sure that I think that's so bad, and your response here I think falls into that. Aren't you now playing Horton again? Talking about what theater should do to better serve the greater good? That's not "yopp", that's New Yorky or educational theater. I think it's unfair to suggest that other ways of making work can't have "yopp," or that "yopp" should be the same for everyone (it's clearly not; note the analogy about being told to love art in art class).

I hear what you're saying about the play I referenced in the article, Jeremy. It's difficult to talk about (and make assumptions about) a play that one hasn't seen and doesn't really know anything about - but no, I don't think I'm being a Horton. I'm talking about us (not the audience, but the theater community) and asking if we are neglecting plays and playwrights that have something important to contribute because they don’t come in the package that we’re used to, or the package that is hip or new or easy to market. And, as a result, we are losing audiences? Are they staying away because the theater doesn't seem to include them in the equation.

It's not about what audiences “should” or shouldn’t like or want – no – I’m talking about US. And I’m grateful to Andrew for asking these questions – I think he’s asked them very thoughtfully and he’s talking about what is important to him in the theater experience (both as an artist and an audience member). Rather than just shooting down these questions as being unfair, it might be really useful to hear what you’re looking for and how the art that you’re seeing and doing is fulfilling that. Can you really say that you think that American theater is all that it could be? Are we funding and selecting and producing plays that speak to the audiences we seek to serve? Are we're all successfully engaging the diverse landscape of the American people in a dialogue that they actually long to be a part of and feel included in?

No, I certainly don't think the American theater is all it could be. But I do think it's a very diverse landscape serving different sorts of audiences, and in discussions of art, theater artists tend to justify their own preferences and declare other things failures, as Andrew did above, referencing a show by the artist below. That, to me, is is not a matter of asking questions (in Andrew's case), but throwing bombs and saying a bunch of shoulds. I wonder if Andrew was motivated (I'm asking honestly) to try to make work that would appeal to his friend back in Wisconsin. I'd agree that there are plenty of underserved communities, and that the fault has a lot to do with artists either choosing not to look beyond themselves (hence NY playwrights writing plays about NY theater people) or, worse, condescendingly writing about other people and assuming that, as artists, they are somehow gifted with the ability to give voice to the voiceless. I don't think you, Jeni, were arguing for either (I think both fit problem categories above). But specifically with the end of your essay and the "sad" ending. I'm just not sure I think it's sad. What if the YOPP wouldn't carry at a regional theater in Seattle, or off Broadway in New York? The idea that theater has universal value is, I think, the biggest mistake. Just because a work fails to achieve the sort of success most theater artists want to see--more and larger productions--doesn't remotely make it a failure, and even risks cheapening the experience those people had in their community theater production. Those can be every bit as meaningful or important as any other show; it's the "professional artists" who usually can't see that.

I agree that the fact that a play does well in one community doesn't mean that is should necessarily do well in another. I believe that this play in particular has that kind of reach - it is a play written for a community of people that is more economically and situationally specific than geograhpically specific. I don't think it would do well in NYC, or Chicago, or a lot of places. I’m not worried about if it is a “success” in that bigger production sort of way.

But problem isn’t that another theater company didn’t find the material to be worthy, or that they didn’t think it fit their needs, or whatever valid judgment they could make had they read it.

What concerns me is that we have a system right now in which no one sees the value in even reading a play because they can't see past the package that the playwright comes in – or the fact that she hasn’t been validated by a certain group of people. THAT is the thing that is sad.

Wow. Amazing article. Insightful. So thoughtful it made me silent as in the inaudible tremors that follow striking of intimate chords. So much so that I couldn't help but wonder if some "yopps" are gestures of a kind and not words at all?

Thanks for so excellently giving me a larger window into what you do- Am going to re-read Horton- how many times might we have read it together with BOTH of us not yet understanding these levels---

Maybe one day the no-MFA will become the new-MFA, the older writer will become the hot new thing and writing about seemingly nothing will be found out to be very much about something. Maybe.

Yopp! Thank you for the analogy. I'm a New Yorker who dropped into another community and came to understand it in a much deeper way than I might have because I was given Judy's play to direct. Because I work in the theater, I am gifted with opportunites where I am required to understand the way others live, think, feel, and experience something authentic. It is an incredible gift. This is akin to the STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND "grok". When I "grok" something I fully understand it - all sides and views of it - in the depths of my being. When I "grok" it I "Yopp" it. As an artist it is what I strive for. As an audience or "experiencer" it is what I yearn for.

Grok! I love it!! Thank YOU Amy. And of course this all makes perfect sense to me. As a playwright who has had the pleasure of working with you, I can say that I (and many many playwrights – Judy included) have benefited tremendously from your determined efforts to Grok the playwright’s Yop. What a great way to think about it!

Jeni, I've been whoing and yopping along for a very long time now and almost all of the feedback I have always gotten from theatres is 'nice yopping, great whoing, but it isn't really about anything, is it? Feel free to send us another play if you ever happen to bip or yap or yip. To sell tix, please keep in mind that a play must (pick a min of 2 of the following) make certain people feel superior, be by an Important Recognized Artist, be about a recognizable disease/cause célèbre, or be a polemic.'

Really, all I've figured out after all this time writing plays is: I went to the wrong schools, got the wrong education, had the wrong/very few friends, and really, I already knew all of that by the time I was in middle school.

Thanks for being so honest, Mara - though having read your work I find it hard to believe that anyone would imply that your plays aren't about anything! But I know a lot of playwrights feel the same way – as if their work is less important than a set of external forces that have nothing to do with them. It's a message that has sent many a Jo-jo back inside to play with yo-yo.

I held off on responding to this myself hoping that some brave Artistic Director, Managing Director or Lit Manager would jump in and talk about how they experience the Yop factor when they are looking at new work… and I guess in a sense I’m still holding off... except to invite anyone reading this to jump in and talk about it.

Rich analogy with kaleidoscopic implications. I particularly relate to the following passage:

'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!”'

This makes (poetically) explicit what is intuitively upsetting about the 'Theater of Good Intentions'. Thank you! Well done.FB

"Horton" is not only one of the defining books of the 20th Century, I think, but is a "yop" unto itself. It speaks to fundamental truths in a clear, shell-puncturing way. The trick, the very hard trick, as a playwright, is to move beyond style and wit and logic and to find the "yop" in the work. How can I make this piece work on a subconscious, pre-conscious, gut level, that the audience will KNOW even if they can't articulate it? And still have something interesting to say? And speak for the Whos who might not be raising their own voices for whatever reason? I suspect the beauty of theatre is that to hit "Yop", it requires the alchemical blend of text, actor, director, designer, and audience. Only if all are moving as one can we hear (without knowing we're hearing it) the "yop".