October 10, 2014 by Sam Graber
I recently had a big idea. Call it a wild revelation. And since this wild revelation hit in full force in the craziest of places, and given that I’ve had time to contemplate its impact, I feel comfortable sharing it with you, if you’re up for it, because this revelation has completely altered the way I’ve viewed not just my playwrighting but life in general.
It’s about being Old vs. being Young.
Wait, sorry, I didn’t mean to tease you with this massive revelation only to sort of backtrack, but there actually needs to be a stitch of background, which unfortunately is going to drag you into the abyss of my personal character history, but only so that we can emerge with a context by which to understand my Old vs. Young thesis.
Stay with me.
When I was younger, I’m talking elementary school, I was anointed with those words every parent loves to hear: Academically Advanced. As a result, I was consistently placed in advanced groups and settings for my age. By the time I was a teenager, and able to choose for myself, I was used to being the young guy in the room. So I continued making deliberate choices to associate with the older crowd. When I was a high school freshman I wanted to be around the upperclassmen. When I was in college I wanted to hang with grad students. Once a member of the working world I resided and socialized and romantically entangled myself with people far older than me.
The rationale was that by clinging to older groups I would be able to gain wisdom and insight to matters of life at a rate faster than if I affiliated with same-age peers. I guess I was the young kid that the older crew always liked having around. Maybe I got good at playing that young guy role. And while in that role I relished hearing stories from those beyond me in years about everything from insurance to marriage, and from flying jets in the Vietnam war to live-aboard sailboats, and from real estate investments to personal finance, and from life possibilities to death problems. I felt my perspicacity was accelerated by these associations. I felt I could make smarter and better decisions for myself by hearing the successes and failures of those who came before me.
I lived my life like that for a long time.
It all came to an end one month ago.
One month ago I was enthusiastic to attend a reading of a new play written by one of the luminaries of our field. The play explored the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Though a draft, the script was still resplendent of the polish that experience brings. It was well-crafted. It was finely structured. However, the play didn’t stick with me. In fact, the play kind of irritated me.
And I couldn’t figure out why.
I mean, here was fresh drama was one of the living notables of playwrighting, diving into the electrifying crosshairs of privilege and social upheaval. Yet the script didn’t emotionally skewer (or maybe it did and I was the only one left untouched). There wasn’t the crackling enchantment that makes theater both riveting and memorable. There wasn’t the it.
But why wasn’t the it there? This is what irritated me. What didn’t work? What was missing? I spent a lot of time trying to solve these questions as if I somehow knew that the answer would have profound impact.
The situation is as follows: I have traveled to Seattle because a theater company is doing a staged read of one of my new plays. I am sitting in the lobby of a Seattle hotel surrounded by a slew of people, not one of which is under seventy years old. Yes. I am the youngest person in the room by thirty years and that is saying something because I am now officially an Old F%&*er. You think I’m kidding but consider the average life expectancy of the male human is 71 years. I am more than halfway through my life and traveling to the Pacific Northwest only to be platooned by a gaggle of senior humans.
Let me say something about the Pacific Northwest. I never realized the people here had an accent. But something happens with us Old F%&*ers. We talk slower, at a saturnine rate of speech such that every morsel of inflection is amplified to a level commonly referred to as Shriek. And that Pacific Northwest accented shriek from the locals is assaulting my ears such wonderful conversational stimulants including: prescription medication, the weather, traffic, the weather, the goddamn government, the weather, obituaries, and also, just in case you missed it, the weather.
AND I LOVE IT.
Oh yes, I’m not interested in standing up and moseying myself out of the senior cabal and back to my hotel room where I can watch 71 cable channels in peace. I’m happy sitting here and trying to post-process the continental breakfast amidst the oeuvre of my people (“Cereal. Cereal! CEREAL. CEREAL IN A BOWL. Yes. Do you want some? DO YOU WANT SOME CEREAL IN A BOWL? Fine. What kind? WHAT KIND? You see the weather?”). It doesn’t get better than this.
Especially when during the flight out I got seated next to a strangely-haircut member of the touring DJ troupe Bixel Boys who somehow spent the flight manipulating his phone which, besides being of a size and dimension bigger than the plane, apparently could manage something like 71 internets at the same time. I have never seen a person work every social media page like this kid. It was louder and more violent than any in-flight entertainment movie. I sat there worried that this kid was probably seeing my pre-Mesozoic phone and worried right back that my Old F%&*er flakes might rub off on him.
So anyway, the mind has ample time to consider the finer workings of life when it’s awake all night because the Cascades Amtrak train rumbles by every hour on the hour and the Puget Sound foghorn follows with random protracted blasts and I have to use the bathroom 71 times.
Which is when I figured out what was missing with the Occupy Wall Street play.
The issue with the Occupy play is that it sounded like an old person talking down to the young. The play came across like someone old reporting on the young to the young. It sounded old. It oozed old.
There it is.
Which then got me thinking about art coming across as old versus art coming across as young. And about the choices I’ve made in my life, and whether I’ve fallen into the same condition as that Occupy play.
I thought about Old vs. Young in relatable terms, setting up a way to think about it using popular mediums of media to which we all could recognize:
- New York Times – reports on the young to the old.
- Wall Street Journal – reports on the old to the old.
- USA Today – reports on the old to the young.
In its simplicity, Old vs. Young instantly identifies and cleaves two massive forces. Old and Young. Which is efficient for delineating demographics for news reporting, yet still leaves open the misconception, at least for our theater discussion purposes, that Old and Young is based on age. It also allows for the fallacy that Young as a subject matter must deal with actual youth, and that dialog must be stuffed with youth-related interests and slang. Likewise, it falsely suggests that Old means people who are senior citizens.
One of my great friends and colleagues Joey Madia warns how the Young are attuned to any falsity in the telling of their stories by adults (they have highly developed Old F%&*er detectors). Joey stresses how youth and their relationship with the world is in constant flux. In fact, each year, before recasting and restaging his teen plays, Joey tells how he always reads a script aloud so that updates to language and references to the latest technology can be made. Which provides all the more reason to acknowledge that Old vs. Young isn’t about age or subject matter or contrivances of the contemporary.
I was at an art gallery recently and the oil-on-canvass portraits of early 20th century European royalty were interesting from a historical perspective. But they came across feeling old. Old has that lethargic and heavy tone. Old feels languid, reminiscent, nonresponsive, melodramatic, circumferential, and preachy. Oh yes, the preachy. We’ve all sat through our share of preachy plays. Doesn’t it sound old? I’ll take the Guernica.
Meanwhile, Young art is art that feels young. It feels youthful. It has color, vivacity, breath, shine, bounce, crispness, and velocity. It puts out energy and takes in energy. It’s got a sheen of amplitude. There’s a dance to it.
It’s like the difference between new adult fiction and new teen fiction. In case you haven’t read teen fiction in a while, there’s some really good stuff out there. Except, to me, much new adult fiction feels like it’s trying too hard, overstuffing itself with prolix prose for the sake of impressing editors and critics. Teen fiction just delivers the story. It’s the young reporting to the young.
Don’t you just know when something feels young and something feels old?
So this revelation affected me. It’s about the tone and nature of art, sure, but it’s really more a framework, if not a mechanism, for drawing the boundaries for life’s daily routine.
It caused me to take serious stock of how I’ve been going about my life. It caused me to wonder whether I should alter my approach to each regular day, the sights that go in my eyes, the sounds in my ears, the foods I taste, where I eat, the places I visit, the streets I walk, the way I sit, the tools I use, the clothes I wear, the environments I habit, and the conversations I carry.
I expect there will be those who wonder if I haven’t crossed some significant milestone birthday and now am confronting thoughts of mortality. Except I’ve been doing death problems with Old F%&*ers since I was young, remember? I’m fairly sure what a mid-life crisis entails and this is different. This is recognizing that seniority and ageism and the elderly is not only a natural flow of existence, but also highly valuable and valued by me. I still have a lot to learn and I will always defer to those who have the wisdom to teach and inspire me. But don’t the young have something to teach us as well?
There’s a balance between Old and Young that all of us need to find. By circling myself around the feeling of old, will my playwrighting seem old? Hanging around youthful tendencies doesn’t make us young. But it sure could help defend against our stuff sounding old. Keep your wits old and your art young.
Couple mornings ago I walked into the local Barnes & Noble cafe. Picked out a work spot. Dropped my bag at a corner table by the electrical outlet. Peeled my outer jacket. Untangled cords. Fired up the laptop to rock some emails. Positioned my chair. Then headed toward the service counter for some morning beverage…when…huh…
Is that Neil Diamond?…playing overhead?…playing softly? Soporific almost. And the people slouched in nearby seats…eating muffins. Slowly. Chewing quietly. Staring sullenly into space. In fact, the whole place…slow, quiet, soporific, sullen.
I packed up my stuff and left.