I managed to get myself to The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway more than once. After first being dazzled by Lily Tomlin’s character portrayals, I paid closer attention to Jane Wagner’s script — especially an amazing moment at the end that still comes to me when I question why I ever bothered with theater.
Trudy, a central character, reports her space alien chums’ curiosity about the “goose bump experience.” It turns out that the phenomenon is critical to their earthly explorations, and Trudy hits upon the idea of sending them to the theater. The sensation occurs as they stand in the back: the space chums discover ecstasy and art – but not in the expected place. “It wasn’t the play gave ‘em goose bumps, it was the audience,” says Trudy. “Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things … that just knocked ‘em out.”
The audiences: that, for me, is the essence and the allure of theater. When I touch audiences – with an insight by a woman in sports, the strength of a victim who finds reconciliation, the unknown story of a fighter for rights – I experience elation, too. I see the possibilities of growth, exchange, and, sometimes, maybe sometimes, transformation.
Where ideas generated by television and newsprint and blogs can readily fade, the arts have eloquence and power. Pundits could not match the visceral embrace of An American Rendition, a dance-theater piece by Jane Comfort and Joan La Barbara that draws audiences into the interplay of government torture and “reality” television. The live performance is riveting.
As foolish as it may seem, I hold out the hope that stories and words and bodies in motion can give us nourishment, inner guidance, fortitude — that theatre can make a difference in the drive for universal human rights and equality. The theater, after all, is about humanity, and all of us have it. And the theater, it seems, can even cause goose bumps. Perhaps it is all an allusion, but — isn’t it worth trying?
Cindy Cooper is an award-winning playwright, journalist and author. How She Played the Game was produced at the Women’s Project, Primary Stages, 80 more. Words of Choice traveled to 20 states; other plays in Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, L.A., Israel. A two-time Jerome Fellow, her plays are in 15 books. www.cyncooperwriter.net