I'm back from TCG's Fall Forum on Governance, an event that brings together theatre trustees and senior staff from across the nation. This year's theme was “Investing in Vitality: Actions Plans and Honest Dialogue to Strengthen Capitalization and Diversity.” We spent the weekend discussing how a strong business model rooted in diversity and inclusion and based on a long-term financial plan will better serve a theatre’s company's mission, vision and purpose as well as its community. It was a powerful, engaging, informative and emotionally/politically charged convening that focused on intersection of diversity, inclusion, artistic freedom and financial health. I’ll be capturing my notes and reflections on TCG Circle’s Diversity and Inclusion Salon.
By Sunday evening when I arrived at Penn Station, I was exhilarated, but exhausted. I was also in pain from having sustained an accidental self-inflicted hot water second-degree burn on my thumb. Don't worry, I’ll spare you the details and photo!
The train was 45 minutes late and overcrowded. Couples and families were split apart and strangers were seated side-by-side. Most folks plugged into electronic devices right away. All around me, people were listening to music, watching movies, working on spreadsheets, writing reports and sending emails. I thought about working, but couldn’t summon the focus or strength. Instead, I rested and thought about the uncertainty and exciting possibilities that lay ahead. Doing so, allowed me to overhear a touching and unexpected conversation between the two men seated in front of me. One was older, in his late 30s, the father of a 7 year old girl. The other one was a junior in college, in his early 20s.
The conversation began in Trenton, where the Young Man had boarded. My ear picked up their conversation when the Young Man started speaking about the differences between Princeton and College Park as college towns. The Young Man was from a small town in the Midwest and then had transferred from UMD to Princeton in August. He was still trying to get used to everything. After spending most of my life in a farming/cattle ranch community, before attending undergrad and grad school in Austin, TX, I understood what he meant by getting used to everything. Austin is great college town, but it’s also a big music town that hosts the ever-popular SXSW Festival, has a lot of great food and excellent outdoor activities. While worlds apart in many ways, both College Park and Princeton have beautiful scenic campuses, are peopled with brilliant, accomplished and creative minds, and rest in close proximity to the nation’s most exciting, international cities.
The Older Man suggested that part of the Young Man's trouble was that New Jersey has an identity problem. “Princeton is a great school, one of the best schools, but I would never want to live in Jersey. But because of work, I’ve spent time in a few major cities and the shore. One on one, New Jersey has some nice cities, as beautiful as any city in America. But, for some reason, somewhere along the way, the state got a bad reputation and it stuck. You know, the whole armpit thing”
The Older Man then recommended that the Young Man take a few weekend trips to New York and mentioned that the last time he was there, he saw Avenue Q. This, as you can imagine, delighted me to no end. Usually, I'm the person on the train that tells strangers to go see theatre in various cities.
Now, the Young Man had never heard of Avenue Q, so the Older Man explained that it was an irreverent “parody, riff, take” on Sesame Street. “Instead of counting and the ABC’s, we learn that everyone is racist and sexist and that we’re all basically good people who do bad things sometimes and have all kinds of issues. It was the funniest, smartest thing I’d ever seen.”
The Older Man then asked the Young Man if he had ever watched Sesame Street. The Young Man replied, "Of course, I grew up on it." The Older Man confessed that he hadn't watched it growing up, but does now with his daughter. Then, he started talking about the puppetry of the Lion King and tried to connect with regards to the history of puppetry. He wasn't quite getting right, which made me want to interject and launch into my Intro to Theatre lecture about the history of puppets and the impact of The Lion King on puppetry in the American Theatre, but I didn’t and I'm glad. If I had, it probably would've prevented what became the most amazing unscripted conversation I've ever eavesdropped on in my life.
When talk turned to the Lion King, the Young Man got excited, because had seen it with his parents. They talked about how the Broadway production was so different and even more beautiful than the movie. The Older Man shared that he thought Scar was a terrible villain, because he killed his own brother to be king. To this, the Young Man adamantly disagreed. He thought Ursula from the Little Mermaid was "the worst person in the world. Well, not person, but character. She's pure evil. To see that people are weak and lonely, to make promises to help them, to make impossible bargains, knowing they won't be able to ... and then to take their lives. That's just wrong. I hate her so much." He got deeply emotional when he spoke. His voice rose, but also quivered in timber. It made me think he had met his own Ursula at some point in his life. The Older Man agreed and said he would make sure to talk to his daughter about that when they watched it again.
From there, they launched into the most compelling and detailed conversation about princesses from the following Disney Movies: Aladdin, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. They spoke passionately and at great length about the trajectory of each woman: what they had wanted, the villains they had to face, the challenges they overcame, and what they learned/how it changed them. In the end, they determined that Belle was the absolute best of all of the Disney princesses, because she was smart, liked to read, was patient and kind to her father, was a little weird, didn't want to do what everyone else wanted to do and she was pretty.
The Older Man felt good about this, because his daughter loves Belle so much and he's been worried about her only wanting to be pretty. The Young Man felt good about this because he always connected with the Beast. When he was younger, he was angry a lot and didn't always know what to do with his emotions. Also, he wants to fall in love with someone like Belle, a smart, pretty, kinda weird woman, who doesn't want to be like everyone else.
After that, they started talking about places to visit in D.C., what the Young Man wanted to do with his life and gambling. I stopped listening at that point and wrote down everything I could remember. When I finished, I looked up and saw that the Young Man had gone to sleep and moments later, the train slowed to a stop in Baltimore. The Older Man stood up and gathered his things. He helped an elderly woman get her suitcase down and before departing, he looked back and down at the Young Man. He didn't smile, but his eyes softened.
It was only then that I felt a twinge of guilt. These two men, who had never before met, were caught in a moment when their worlds had intersected on a deeply personal level. They couldn't have known their conversation was being stolen and recorded in such detail. Everyone around us was plugged in and seemingly oblivious. But I couldn't help, but bear witness. My expectations for where this conversation would go had been so vastly and delightfully overturned. I was so struck by how the world had opened up to this rare, wonderful and unexpected moment of intimacy. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did ...
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!