I have enjoyed live theater most of my adult life. I recently attended a world premier performance of American Song at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater that was so unique and powerful, that I cannot stop thinking about what I experienced. The play, described in the program as having Two Acts, focuses on the some of the difficult challenges parents face today around issues of violence, gun violence in particular. The play provides a glimpse into the struggles of a father whose son becomes front-page news because of his involvement in a school shooting. The father wonders painfully why he and his wife did not see the warning signs, and also what mistakes they may have made as parents that might have contributed to their son’s horrific action.
The setting for Act One is the countryside where the father, who is alone on stage for entire first act, is building a stone wall while giving his monologue. We learn that he has been working on the wall for months. As he lays each new stone he begins to see that there are small mistakes that he has made while building the wall that cause it to be crooked—mistakes that only become clear as he looks at the fuller view, possible only now that the wall is near completion. This becomes a metaphor for the doubts and questions that he and his wife have about the many important decisions they have made as they raised their child, decisions that only in retrospect they may come to question.
As riveting as Act One of this play was, it was Act Two that was so unique and that three weeks later, still has me telling others about it. Act One, the monologue, lasted 80 minutes without an intermission. When it ended, a leader from the theater came on stage and explained how Act Two would play out. She explained that in the lobby of the theater, chairs had been set up in circles for 8-10 people to gather with a trained facilitator to discuss our reactions to what we had just experienced. Participation was of course optional. The invitation was very relaxed, and she explained that it is common for theatergoers to go out afterward to talk about the play they had just seen. Given the strong emotion of the content of the play, the theater itself was offering to host these conversations in the lobby with a trained facilitator which provided the added benefit of discussing the play with a broader group of people, not just the people who had come with us to the play.
I would estimate that 80% of the people, probably close to 200 in all, joined one of the discussion groups. My wife and I joined a group with seven other people that we did not know. Our facilitator explained that he would offer us two questions and that once everyone had been given their chance to speak for two minutes, there would be an open discussion for up to fifteen minutes. The first question was, “What scene in the play was most memorable to you, and why?” The second question was, “Did the play resonate with anything in your personal or family life?”
Because I have had the honor of listening to the deep stories of peoples’ lives for many years as a pastor and a therapist, I was not surprised about by the content of what people shared, as I know most people have a lot just under the surface that they are wanting to talk about if given the opportunity. What did surprise me, as we were sitting in the lobby of a theater, was that people who were complete strangers were able to so quickly create a safe enough place for each other to share their deep joys, sorrows, and regrets.
One person spoke of a recent suicide in the family, another of estrangement from her adult children, and others shared moving stories of forgiveness and reconciliation between themselves and loved ones. The play took us all to an authentic, vulnerable place within our hearts and souls, and we chose to share that vulnerability with each other. It is worth noting that this deep, authentic conversation was occurring in a group that contained members of different races, political parties, and religious identities.
Our facilitator kindly let us know when we had reached the end of the fifteen minutes set aside for group discussion. He also let us know that if we wished, he could stay an additional half hour to continue the rich conversation we were having. Without hesitating, we all stayed the additional thirty minutes and continued our honest sharing.
My primary take away from this experience was how deeply we longed for authentic conversation and connection around the concerns that mattered most to us. I began to wonder where else, in addition to this bold experiment by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, could these conversations occur? Who could host them? How could we host more of these conversations in our homes, our faith communities, our neighborhoods, and our schools?
The importance of such conversations cannot be underestimated. I believe they are crucial to breaking down the isolation and divisiveness found in our modern culture, for it is in doing so that we begin to address some of the root causes of violence in our culture, the very topic that American Song addressed so powerfully that night.