Updated: July 6, 2012 6:55PM
Imagine 400 people of all ages gathered at dusk on the 4th of July in an old high school gymnasium, the kind that doubles as an auditorium with a stage on one end. To the accompaniment of Sousa marches played on a boombox, a projector casts images of exploding fireworks on a pull-down screen. With each slide a drum sounds, children squeeze bubble-wrap to approximate the report of firecrackers, and the assembly issues a communal “Oooooooh” or “Ahhhhhhh.”
After a volunteer orator offers a spirited tribute to our nation’s founders, folks depart with a sense that they’ve gotten a little closer than usual to the spirit of 1776.
This is how we celebrate America’s birthday up in the tinderbox of the thickly forested Cascade Mountains where fireworks of any kind can prove as destructive as incendiary bombs. The danger of conflagration doesn’t fully account for the creativity, however. Every day is different where television does not invade and wireless devices get no signal.
To celebrate the summer solstice, for example, staff members might surprise the community with a rendition of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They make an already hilarious piece downright sphincter-threatening. Last week four musicians played a concert that featured Bach and several jazz greats, using only a guitar, piano, flute and harmonica. It was free, but I’d have gladly purchased a ticket back in the real world.
Weekly open-mic talent nights consistently draw standing-room-only audiences, and not merely because parents feel obliged to witness 6-year-olds telling knock-knock jokes or plunking “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano. People are funny, and when we set our minds to it, we can entertain ourselves in remarkably clever and creative ways.
For better or worse, however, we rarely try anymore. Like so many things today, we have handed amusement over to professionals and become passive consumers. Much as I enjoy the brilliant music and stage plays one can experience in Chicago or at the university where I teach, a couple weeks of witnessing do-it-yourself comedy, music and drama leave me lamenting something we have nearly lost.
No, the amateurism one can witness on YouTube and the faux spontaneity of reality television don’t quite fill the void, despite the uniqueness and fascinating quality of some offerings. People mostly absorb such stuff in isolation and rarely know the players. In the ongoing, continual theater of an unplugged community, we are all actors, and while some of what we cherish about performances comes from knowing and loving fellow cast members, mostly it comes from the continual surprise at hidden talents lurking inside one another. Who knew, for example, that the entomologist who came to have a different perspective on bugs for a week could make a harmonica sound like Joshua Bell’s violin?
The impermanence and unrepeatable quality of a community’s self-entertainment makes it precious as well. Like life itself, you can’t get it back when the evening ends. It resides for a time in memory and briefly gets passed along in stories, but rarely can one preserve it. No matter. Tomorrow will bring something just as crazy, clever and legendary. There’s never a dull moment, and seldom a bored soul, when everyone is part of the cast and we generate the script as we go.
As a child, in a small-town operetta, I once played the part of an arbutus. My sister was a marigold. Maybe I’ll reprise that role for a couple weeks while re-entering the real world. So far as I know, flowers don’t have to rehearse or need a laugh-track.
Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.