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Rising: Our Theater in the 21st Century

By Steven Leigh Morris

Rising, slowly.

The flatland of the L.A. basin shrinks below, or appears to. Griffith Park Observatory comes into view. The downtown skyline. Watts Towers. Shrinking, until the entire region is a mole on the planet’s slightly curved face.

Santa Ana gusts, like the waves of a fever, carry the hot air balloon north, over the Tehachapi Mountains and across the San Joaquin Valley. It’s not a 21st century hot air balloon, no garish stripes or polka dots. It’s more like one created by the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783 – pale blue with ornate gold trim. Theirs wasn’t a gentle culture, the Montgolfier Brothers, France in the 18th century. It was seething with violence and disease. Napoleon was on the march. There were peasants and the privileged, sort of like today. And their music was as gentle and inspired and as Baroque as this balloon.

Johann Sebastian Bach had been dead only 33 years. His fugues and counterpoints, expressing the joys of life and of God, were being played and sung all across Europe. In six more years, the bayonets and guillotines of the French Revolution would send men and women to that same God, perhaps accompanied by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Hard to know.

Musicians like Bach scraped by. Bach himself was one of the lucky ones, always in demand, probably because he was so good. He learned about music largely from his older brother, who took in the 10-year-old Johann after the death of both their parents. His brother helped land him a place in a local school, which he left when he was 15. Musicians like Bach had patrons and got jobs as Kapellmeisters all over the place. Then, as now, music was a very, very important part of human existence. Everybody sang. Whether or not they were “professional” – as a mark of credibility – was not a feature of conversation, at least , not that I can find in the record. Mostly, they talked and wrote about making music. Music belonged to everybody, even the right to create it. There’s no evidence of complaints that there were too many singers, too many composers and ensembles for audiences to know who was serious and who wasn’t, who was professional and who wasn’t, who was good and who wasn’t. That verdict was pretty much determined when they started playing and singing. Making music was what mattered. And still is.

The balloon floats further north, over the San Francisco Bay and further up, above the once wooded hills of Sonoma County, now scarred by fire. Over 170,000 acres, blackened – vineyards and bucolic farmland and one-third of Santa Rosa – a small city.

Sonoma County Redwoods

When my family emigrated to the US from the UK, we settled in Sonoma County – my parents and three kids. They built a home in a place called Sebastopol. I remember in 1964, staring north out over the slope of our back yard, down onto Santa Rosa and behind it, Mt. St. Helena, orange flames spitting out from its ridges. I was 10 and chastened by the reality that the world is not a safe place. That Hanley Fire took out 50,000 acres in Napa County.

The loss this summer of almost 200,000 acres of pristine landscape across Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of life. Brush fires are ever-present demons, like the ancient Greek sphynxes, who resided in the hills and seasonally demanded the sacrifice of children should the townsfolk fail to solve their riddles.

Sonoma County’s pristine landscape — oaks on rolling hills, apple orchards, vineyards and giant Redwoods near the coast – are what I’ve carried all my life as the embodiment of natural beauty. I moved to the forest in Idyllwild with Sonoma County’s landscape in mind. The Cedars and Sequoias of Riverside County mountains, blackberries growing along the creeks, recall for me the Redwoods of Sonoma. Idyllwild is nestled in the bosom of Mt. San Jacinto, whose very shape resembles Mt. St. Helena. It’s all part of a feeble attempt to go home again. As the song says, “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”    

The Mountain Fire ripped through Mt. San Jacinto in 2014, the same summer I moved up there. The village was evacuated as flames roared over the town’s nearest ridge. We drove off the mountain with three dogs in tow. An army of three thousand firefighters, with air support, fought the fire. In evacuation centers in Hemet and Palm Springs, kids from the Idyllwild Arts Academy videotaped themselves performing a rain dance, which went viral. And then it rained. When I returned, the sky was silver, water cascaded across roads.

Some still say it was the dance, and the music, that saved the town, that only they could dissuade the gods from their fury.

The balloon gains altitude. There are the Redwoods of the Armstrong Woods, which were around when Sophocles and Christ walked the Earth. From up here, they look like thistles. The Russian River snakes towards the Pacific. The curvature of the world grows more apparent.

I hear conversations about imagining our theater in the 21st century. What should it look like? How can it be relevant? Who determines what’s good and what’s not? What’s professional and what’s not?

Can somebody kindly persuade me why what’s professional and what’s not actually matters?

Like music, the theater belongs to everybody, it always did, and everybody needs to be invited to participate as well as to witness, or the art form will burn in the flames of what’s clearly a cultural revolution, burning through pockets of our constricted habits. Audiences of the future, like audiences of yore, ache to curate their experiences. Passive absorption of pre-curated culture within enclosed temples is a 20th century model.

To create theater is a privilege and an entitlement. It’s our most potent reply to the digital age. If we don’t invite everybody to see and do theater, perhaps at the same time, young and old, friends and neighbors, we’ll be walking demented through ashes of an art form we loved, wondering what happened. It’s not the 20th century anymore. We can’t go home again.

It’s autumn in Idyllwild. The oaks are already tilting gold. There’s a sign in the bakery window: “The forest will soon show us how to let go.”