By Leslye Joy Allen Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate
Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
Although it now seems ages ago, I remember one of my former classmates told me something quite revelatory shortly before my graduation from Agnes Scott College. She told me that when my classes were over, and I had turned in that last paper, I was going to make a discovery: I would discover my reading and analysis addiction. I laughed. After all, I thought, we both were older when we returned to school to complete our college degrees. Were we not naturally immune to the kind of excesses that affected much younger women? Agnes Scott’s student body was and still is well over a fourth non-traditional age students, meaning students over the age of 25.
The benefit of attending school with students of various ages was that we all learned something from each other. I was a History major and every semester I was usually assigned anywhere from 18 to 22 books to read in semesters that were usually no longer than 15 or 16 weeks. When my classmate (who graduated before me) told me that after graduation she would get up at 6:00 AM just to go out to fetch the morning newspaper to read, I was certain she was telling one of her funny stories. I was wrong!
After I turned in my final paper for the Senior History Colloquium, I lounged around for a couple of days and then it started: the hunt for reading material. Now, I already owned over a thousand books. I suddenly found myself opening books and re-reading chapters of books I had read years ago; then magazines, scholarly journals, and the TV guide. I read a couple of stage plays, including the stage directions. Was it possible for me to just stop reading and just let my brain relax for a moment? Was it possible for me to pause and not do what I was trained to do? Yet, if I did read something, could I read it just for pleasure?
Like most “Scotties,” my classmate gave me some good advice. She said we all know that most people need to read more. We tell our children to read books; and there is a genuine crisis in how little some people read. Yet, she said, anything you cannot turn off for a while is controlling you, not the other way around. Reading is absolutely necessary and essential to any good education. Yet, when you have to struggle to allow yourself to take a break, there is a problem. Reading and deep analysis must always be self-directed. Deep analysis can become ineffective once it becomes an involuntary reflex.
On a few occasions, I have attended stage plays with actors. Most of these actors I love to death. We have sat in the audience making small talk before the show began and then WHAM! Less than two minutes into the production, the same actors that I love were analyzing every thing: “I wonder why the set designer placed that chair over there?” “How did the stylist get that woman’s hair to look like that?” After the play was over, the analysis really kicked into high gear: “I thought that this character should have entered from the left instead of the right.” “It was a great play, but I would have placed the intermission in a different place.” “Why was that odd sculpture on the table in the corner?” Soon I was thinking to myself, “Why, oh why, did I not just come to see this play by myself?”
Now, to be fair, all actors, playwrights, directors, and etcetera have to analyze plays like this. If they do not do this, they risk overlooking important details that might compromise the integrity of their future performances and productions. It is an exercise in understanding what works on a stage and what does not work on a stage. They cannot take anything for granted: the lighting, the set, costumes, particular moments in the script that they believe need to grab the audience’s attention. Yet, there is a problem when the criticisms and evaluations seem to run on automatic pilot. There is also a problem in not being able to simply sit in an audience and just enjoy the show.
So why are these two scenarios a bit dangerous? After all, there is every reason to complain about the lack of intellectual and artistic stimulation in society as a whole. Most of us with any degree of brains knows that putting a book in a child’s hands or taking them to see a play or to a concert is far better than giving them $200 sneakers and video games. Most of us have witnessed the performance that pandered to the audience for cheap laughs or sank into a ridiculous melodrama designed to do nothing more than make people weep. We have all read the book or essay that seemed written purely for titillation. We do not need any of that. Yet…
The danger in never being able to simply watch a performance just for sheer enjoyment is dangerously close to losing the joy of viewing performance art altogether. The danger in not being able to momentarily, put the book down or not being able to stop analyzing everything is also very close to becoming entirely disconnected from the very people you wish to reach and teach. When you watch what they watch or read what they read, do you do so through their eyes and ears? How can you know what the people expect or need to know or want to know or want to experience or need to experience unless you occasionally JOIN THEM?
So, take a moment and just chill. Every once and awhile, when you read, simply drink in whatever you are reading, and leave your criticisms, questions, and analysis for some later time. If you are watching a play or listening to a piece of music, just watch, just listen, just enjoy. Pause and try to recall when everything that you know now (or think you know now) was once perfectly fresh and new to you. Take that occasional moment to deliberately NOT review, but to renew. Then, get back to work!