Culture v Culture

Every season thousands of companies market their shows as “cultural events”. But what is culture to begin with? 

In their official mission statements many theatre companies claim to “bring culture”, or “provide cultural opportunities” to their community. As audiences we sometimes talk about going to the theater, or the museum, or the opera as a way of, “getting some culture”. But, what the heck is culture, and how do you get some? How as artists are we supposed to provide it? Should we even be thinking of culture as something that can be obtained and distributed? And what are the ramifications of this kind of thinking within the theatre community?

First, culture as defined by Webster's:

1: cultivation, tillage
2: the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation
3: the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
4: expert care and training
5:  a) enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
     b) acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills

6:  a) the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
     b) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence as diversions or a way of life shared by people in a place or time
c) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
     d) the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

Three basic definitions emerge: 

  1. Culture as an agrarian / scientific act

  2. Culture as an intellectual pursuit, or skill set

  3. Culture as a worldview or way of life

I am not interested in the agrarian or scientific definition (although the metaphors for spiritual cultivation are tempting). What I would like to focus on are the differences between the idea of culture as a kind of specialized knowledge, and culture as a community’s unique worldview.

So, which definition of culture do we typically mean when we talk about a modern 'cultural event'? I argue that when most contemporary Americans say they are attending a ‘cultural event’, they mean an activity designed (at least in part) to heighten the participants’ “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts [or] humanities by intellectual and aesthetic training.” On some level this is a kind of educational event. We've all seen theatre of this kind. It is often the work that's billed as "fostering an appreciation of the theatre", which is undeniably an educational undertaking. We see this most often when someone stages the likes of Shakespeare or Brecht; or some other playwright recognized as having, 'cultural significance' . But culture in this sense of the word is little more than a commodity to be bought and sold. Buying a ticket to one of these shows is not unlike paying for a two hour workshop on "aesthetic training". And I believe thinking of culture in this way is partly responsible for a staggering amount of boring old plays produced every year, and a large number of our annoyed or alienated audience members. 

We as theatre artists have made the mistake of thinking of culture as a commodity, of thinking that an artifact like Hamlet, no matter how exquisite, has some sort of inherent external value outside of the context of the culture it exists in. So, we operate under the assumption that if we do our research and work hard in rehearsals, that we will be able to extract this valuable cultural stuff, and then present it to an audience to ‘provide some culture’ for them. As if our communities weren't already brimming with their own vibrant cultures! So, instead of presenting work that has deep and immediately recognizable significance to our own culture, we import the great works of history, set the action in the old west or add some modern stage elements, and then expect our audiences to respond viscerally to this alien artifact from another civilization. 

Of course I'm not saying that the classics can't be brilliantly staged today, or that stories from other cultures cann't be universally recognized. But, I think its important to examine the differences between an audience appreciating an artistic work for its craft, as opposed to being honestly entertained or responding to it on an emotional level. Think of all the allegedly 'great plays' you've seen. Now think of how many of those performances truly moved you. I mean the plays that spoke to you personally, that heightened your awareness of the world around you even for a moment. I'd be willing to bet its not very many. If these plays are regarded as the greatest products that our art form has to offer, shouldn't they be better at triggering the kinds of deeply emotional or psychological responses indicative of truly great art? Even more basically: shouldn't we be more entertained by them?

I think the problem lies in the fact that we often treat our audiences like students in need of some of the cultural 'stuff' we can provide. And, how can an audience be moved if first and foremost they are expecting to get a lecture in aesthetics, or if they have to spend all their energy trying to follow the action? Audiences shouldn't have to work hard to understand what's being communicated. The theatre should be as effortless and engaging as a good conversation. An audience that comes in ready to 'get some culture' like a classroom full of students, is not an audience prepared for a deeply rewarding or entertaining experience. Instead of an active and engaged audience member, what you wind up with before the curtain even opens is a room full of people who are prepared to sit quietly, pay close attention, concentrate, try to keep up, and clap in the right places. In fact, I would argue that many people think of going to the theatre as being little more than just that. And we as artists have come to think of those people as being good audience members!

If you want to know how much more engaged and interested an audience can be, take a look at those same audience members when they're watching a football game. Suddenly they are entirely engaged with their bodies, voices, and minds. They feel in their gut every twist and turn of their team's fortunes and setbacks, they cheer and boo and are on the edges of their seats to see what will happen next. Most theatre artists would kill for an audience that was half as excited as most football fans are. So what gives?

I think part of the answer lies in the final definition of culture, “The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, behavior, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group that depend upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations; also the characteristic features of everyday existence as diversions or a way of life shared by people in a place or time.” Here now is a definition of culture that does not require any special skill or knowledge to obtain. Here culture can only be 'acquired' by living as a human being in a community of other human beings.

Using this definition, a 'cultural event' transforms from a quasi-instructional undertaking, and suddenly becomes almost anything: a football game, a family dinner, a heated argument, a hug. Culture of this type means the simple and unavoidable transfer of knowledge, ideas, and values between people through time. It is not something we need to acquire in order to, “develop the intellectual and moral faculties...” but instead is a convergence of specific expressions, symbols, and signs significant to individuals within in a group. More simply put: it is a kind of incredibly intricate and highly nuanced form of communication.

We should think of theatrical productions in the same way we think of first dates, election nights, prayer services, and birthday parties. Each of these things serves a specific but ever evolving purpose in our culture. What makes a theatrical event special, (what gives it value) is that it has been designed to facilitate a conversion between different members of a community. It is a cultural event that helps people come together and exchange stories in order to share what it means to be human.

We should make a conscious effort to stop thinking of theatre as a dispensary for the culture of 'high art', and begin thinking of it more as a mechanism that allows us to take part in the larger cultural conversions within our community. Theatre, with its incredible ability to make itself new every night is uniquely equipped to tap into the cultural life of any given community at any given time. If we as artists begin to think of culture as something to be absorbed, internalized and transmitted, instead of something we have some kind of semi exclusive access to, then we may find that our audiences are more interested in us, because now we are engaged in an true exchange of values and ideas. We have become active participants in our own culture.