I first had the feeling in the middle of Sleep No More. There I was, inside the immersive theater piece that had taken New York by storm, wandering around a floor of a building made to look like an indoor hedge maze*, itchy in the mask that designated me as a member of the audience, and totally alone. I didn't see anyone else in view except for a taxidermied goat, and I started to feel a rising sense of disgruntled panic. I was SURE I was missing something, that the rest of the audience was probably somewhere else seeing something cooler, that there was something I wasn't understanding. And I hated the feeling.
It's a very human desire to want to know and understand - so much so it's even in the name of our species (the 'sapiens' in Homo Sapiens means 'wise'). We like to know what's what, what the weather will be like next week, to plan ahead and be experts in our fields. We don't like to be lost, to feel like we don't have the necessary pieces of the puzzle. We don't like to be the one staring at the hedges and the goat, alone.
And yet, knowledge comes from curiosity. To make a groundbreaking scientific discovery, thousands of seemingly dumb experiments must be run. And to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of feelings that we look to art to inspire, we must occasionally go outside of our comfort zone. In the epic battle between intellect and emotion, between head and gut, art often strikes squarely in between. And often, “getting” a piece of art is not about "understanding" it fully.
Take Shakespeare, for example. We do a lot of Shakespeare here at the theater, and so we often run across people who will say "oh, I don't understand Shakespeare." But when asked about the story of the play they just saw, they often find that they got Shakespeare just fine. They might not have understood all of the words and references in Romeo and Juliet's first scene together, but they got what was happening loud and clear. And that's really all that's necessary; Shakespeare was a smart enough writer that all his many references and details could fill a page with footnotes (and indeed they often do), but what makes his work last until today is not the cleverness of his allusions but the quality of his storytelling. And if you don't understand all of the historical references or arcane vocabulary, you'll probably still have enough to be able to go with the story, if you travel along with it. Moreover, if you allow yourself to be carried along with the verse and the poetry of Shakespeare’s work, you’ll find that it can act much as music does, and bring you to an emotional level that text alone cannot reach.
The play we're currently producing at the theater, Pinkolandia, is a play about a family in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, after they have fled their homeland, Chile, following Pinochet's brutal military coup. Because it portrays a Chilean family, the play has some dialogue in Spanish, especially in a scene where Beny (the older of the two children) is trying to talk to her parents in the kitchen. Because I don't speak Spanish, the first time I heard it I felt like I was back in that hedge maze, while the bilingual audience members were doubtless getting some key information I was missing. I felt that familiar tide of disgruntled panic, until I realized that even though I didn't understand what the characters of the parents were saying to each other, I was being given enough in the English dialogue to understand the gist of what was being said. And, moreover, listening to the Spanish words fly lightning-quick between these two characters, I felt both like a child who is straining to understand the adult world around her, and like a refugee dropped into a culture I didn't know. I felt, in short, like the characters in the play. Even though I didn't fully understand the scene because of the Spanish, not understanding the scene helped me to better get the play.
As for me, the goat, and the topiary? Well, after a minute I realized that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing in the piece – wandering through, and finding my own path. Nobody was having an identical experience to anyone else in the piece, we were all inevitably missing something, and that was partly the point. Moreover, I realized that though I didn’t love the feeling of being lost and missing out, the piece was making me feel something deeply. And in that moment, I got it. Opening ourselves up art means allowing ourselves to experience a full spectrum of feelings. And sometimes, it is the intention of a piece to make us a little lost, to make us a little uncomfortable, in order to make us better understand.
*If you’re not familiar with it, Sleep No More is a dance/theater piece, a version of Macbeth that makes the audience catch snippets of the story while they choose their own path while wandering around a building that's been converted into a spooky hotel set, both indoors and out)