Walking through Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan last week, I noticed that everyone, in all directions of this packed tiny public space, seemed to be in the midst of serious conversations about the economy. I immediately recognized the analogue nature of the place, the face-to-face interaction, and the breathing-common-air so inherent to the art of theater. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman considered the effect of place on the viral nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “We tend to underestimate the power of physical places,” he wrote. He quoted one of the activists who used the phrase “an architecture of consciousness.” The close proximity within the OWS sphere provokes face-to-face conversation and these conversations are engendering nothing less than a global consciousness and dialogue about what is wrong in the capitalist system.
Zuccotti Park seems to be a particular architecture of consciousness, an island of discourse where differing opinions and attitudes are allowed to co-exist. The immediacy, the unmediated nature of the experience and the storytelling feel familiar to me, a theater person, as I move through the park. Being together, indeed living together and functioning efficiently demands participatory and collaborative interaction. New social systems necessitated by co-existence are happening on a daily basis in the park.
The fact that the Occupiers are not allowed megaphones or amplifiers created the conditions that necessitated the vocal chains of speech now so universally known as “mic checks.” People are forced by circumstance to listen to one another and repeat. Aristotle believed that the human voice and face-to-face conversation were directly linked to civic order.
The nature of groups repeating the speaker’s words, sentences, phrases and paragraphs is radical on a number of fronts. The repetition of ideas forces the repeater to listen in a very particular way. Normally when one listens, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, often called the executive brain, responds rapidly to judge the incoming information, parsing out what to agree with and what to take issue with. The listening and responding allows the words to temporarily bypass the prefrontal cortex and saturate other parts of the brain that are less immediately logical and judgmental. Listening is receiving. Perhaps the outlawing of amplification in Zuccotti Park was a genius and radical way of creating a very particular architecture of consciousness.
Also, the time required for the choral repetition is rare in our increasingly quick paced technological environment. The time allows for process rather than results, and process and re-consideration, rather than quick reactive postulations and ensuing demands, is desperately needed today. The ongoing process happening in Zuccotti Park allows us time to consider our circumstances, in all of its complexities, and find new ways to proceed in a capitalist context that is so clearly not working for the majority of citizens.
And so as I move through Zuccotti Park I am reminded of what makes theater distinctive. The theater in its nature exists to reflect upon and propose ways that humans might exist together effectively. In this way Zuccotti Park is proposing, as does any company of actors on the stage, ways that humans might be together. In the case of OWS, the proposition involves non-hierarchy, cooperation and resistance. The public sphere of the park is a place of discourse. The theater too is, in its nature, a place of discourse, consciousness and plurality. The theater can create the circumstances where audiences and actors co-exist with differing points of view and find some kind of unity within a pluralistic social situation. Social medias like Facebook and Twitter can organize events and bring people together around OWS or a theatrical event, but NOTHING substitutes the fact of being present together united in time and space. Social media gets you to the park but then what happens in the park is an entirely different affair. The immediacy is key. The unamplified sound, people telling stories, speaking from personal experience and hope and belief is key.
The invention of theater coincided with the foundations of democracy in Ancient Greece. In the sixth century BC, Athens was a city-state divided among four warring tribes and troubled by chronic clan conflicts and tyrants. In 534 BC, frustrated by the clashes among his fellow citizens, Pistratus, an enlightened general who founded the first Athenian Library, initiated an annual theater festival in Athens. Until then theatrical events were mostly diverse choral shows, played throughout the city separately for the different tribes. At this new festival, all four opposing tribes came into a common space at the same time and shared a collective experience. The result was groundbreaking. Within a generation democracy was a reality. Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles were among the celebrated playwrights for this new kind of theater. This annual theater festival in Athens gave birth to a new democratic system and the fabric of Athenian consciousness altered completely. The city was re-districted to reflect this democratic ideal of cooperation and thinking-things-through together.
Perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate the meaning of democracy and find new shapes and means in which this magnificent human invention can become real again. How we live together now, compacted into jammed urban and suburban areas, must be figured out anew. We must learn to live and flourish with people who are different. We are in this together.