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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

The Guest from Pittsburgh

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

Lately, I’ve been haunted by this line written by Lucas Hnath for one of his characters in The Christians.  When we hear it for the first time, it is spoken by a man relating the story of meeting his wife on an airplane.  He sees her down the length of the plane and sends a note with the above line via a stewardess.  As the play progresses, however, we find that the powerful urge and the distance can apply in very different ways in very different contexts – even to married people in bed together.

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

I spend the majority of my time working with young folk.  Most of the people with whom I work on shows have been born in the very late 1990s. Some are even creatures solely of the 21st century.  These are young folks for whom the Clinton presidency is merely a written history, and for whom even the “W” years are a little hazy.

I have here an article written for “The Wall Street Journal” by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology.  She claims that these nice young people grew up in a world in which their personal and emotional safety was paramount.  She points out that this cohort of young folks rode in protective car seats – often into the middle school years.

I can associate with this.  When I was a kid, my Mom drove my brother and myself around in a gigantic blue station wagon.  It was enormously useful of hauling around me and my siblings and bringing home the stuff needed to keep our family afloat.  I can’t tell you if there were even seat belts in the bench seats in back. 

In our little Iowa town, there was a little grocery store that today would be outpaced in content and selection by any two shelves in any convenience store.  So my Mom would dump my brother and myself in the station wagon and drive off to Des Moines to a supermarket on the edge of the west side of town. 

One day, coming back from a trip to the grocery store and the five-and-dime store, we were in a fairly nasty collision.  I recall rolling around in the back of the car with the groceries and whatever notions we’d gotten on other errands.  No air-bag deployed as that station wagon was manufactured by people who hadn’t dreamed of such a thing yet.  No one thought much if I might have been injured, hitting my head against the bench seat in front of me or by a flying lettuce.

I do not say this to make light of auto collisions. In today’s world, that same mother with two boys would have had far more safety features in her car.  And I don’t bring this up to say, “And we’re fine – we don’t need no stinkin’ seat belts!” As the father of a young daughter, I believe strongly in delivering her safely to adulthood with all of her parts and noggin intact.

Professor Twenge uses this example and others to make a case that today’s young folks, as a generational cohort, look to authority figures for protection.

This claim dovetails nicely with a study published by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in The Journal of Democracy.  There they report that a 2011 study found a growing number of U.S. millennials (in their late teens/early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running a country – nearly a quarter of the millennials polled.

And a few disparate cases from college campuses around the country to make a point about the young wusses in colleges who need “trigger warnings” and can’t abide to hear a perspective different from their own. Speakers get “disinvited” on this campus – students set up “safe space” on that campus.

Perhaps related to these stories, the Pew Research group reported this past summer that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

It’s not my task to convince you of anything related to these stories.  Oh, I could say that -- in my experience -- students today aren’t that much different from the college students about 17 years ago.  But what’s the point of saying that? Which experience shall we privilege?  To which evidence should we give more weight?

I recently enjoyed a visit from an alum who graduated many years ago.  Now she is married and moving through her life.  She and her husband rattled through town, and she came by to see a couple of her old teachers and a few friends.  She spoke of stress-filled arguments -- and the perhaps equally stressful non-arguments -- when she’d hear something, or see something that would make her boil with anger to call out something silly and/or plain stupid. On what topic?  Take your pick – taking a knee (or not) during the national anthem by her city’s football team, the status of refugees, a president’s public name-calling of North Korea’s dictator, or a dozen other issues great and small.  If you participate in social media, you likely have found the same.

We’re told that we live in times in which relationships – long-held friendships – are being smashed because of the tribal disagreements that appear to arise on an almost hourly basis.

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

I’ve been in the story-telling business for a long time.  Probably you have as well.  I suppose I’m a professional at it.  It’s my job to pick up a script as an actor or director and discern the elements of a story and make it live for the cast and for an audience.  Some of my earliest memories surround the making of stories and the use of stories to make sense of myself and my place in the universe.

Indeed, I guess I could claim that I don’t really know how to communicate much outside the realm of story.

Every medium has structures, systems, or “rules-of-the-road” that are really helpful, but also elements that are limiting factors. A Phillips-head screw-driver is a fantastic tool, but not for filling a tire with air. 

Narrative stories are marvelous in providing context and interest and means by which we can find order and meaning in our lives. But narrative elements also deceive us by fooling us to see causal or even correlative relationships that simply don’t exist. The structure of events in narrative imply hierarchy and weight. A good story-teller tells the right event at the right time to heighten interest and/or meaning, and a bad story-teller still arranges events along some kind of time-line.  A story, by its nature, begins and ends in concrete ways – not every story begins with the origin of the universe.

The logic of story can be its own best feature or downfall.  For some, the crowning delight of a whodunnit is figuring out whodidit well before the story’s ultimate reveal.  Conversely, some folks can be awfully dismayed by a story in which they see the conclusion long before the conclusion appears.

The neatness of narrative betrays us.

In moments of fear, we cling to stories of meaning. 

Many years ago I was an American gypsy of sorts. Artists have to be.  In my youth, I’d been a touring actor, travelling thousands of miles to and fro across the country.  Then, after being in one place for a measure of about five years, I then traversed in five cross-country moves in five years – starting in central Michigan and moving to southern Texas.  It was a lonely period that appeared aimless at the time.  The story of Abraham meant much to me in those years.

But I’m no Abraham.  It was only a story that gave me some comfort in the midst of the chaos that made me afraid.  The future was very murky.  Story gave me some small means of coping.

It’s not surprising, then, that we look to stories to confirm our best and worst beliefs.  That’s why it’s not my task to persuade you of anything.  Nor is it your task to persuade me of anything.  That’s not our job.  Not right now.

Because, if I don’t like your story, or, if it conflicts with my story in a way that I don’t like; I’ll be inclined to dismiss, or not hear your story.  And, if I don’t listen to your story, then you might as well have not told it. Unless you get joy from speaking into the wind.

I went to school for a time with Sean Clark, who said something to me in a bar in Iowa City that stayed with me to this day. Sean said that he sometimes got tired of talking with show people, because while you were talking, you could tell the other person in the conversation was already cuing up their next story to tell once you finished what you had to say.

It’s probably important that we honor what we have to say – our story.  But it hurts us when our “more important” story gets in the way of hearing the story of the person we choose to speak with.

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

Over the years of occupying this space, I’ve had the privilege many times to honor the practice of making theatre – gathering together in a space and telling the story that, “I’m human and that you’re human. We’re all just human together.” That little spark of recognition that you get in watching a play that someone else has felt what you feel, done what you’ve done (or what you would have liked to have done sometimes).  And usually said much better than we could have figured out for ourselves.

In the theatre we’re often more privileged to tell the story, rather than listen to a story.  I’m not suggesting that we gather in an auditorium somewhere and go around the room and have everyone tell their story.

How do we listen?  How do we lead in our communities large or small in the telling of stories? As individuals how do we find a way past our own fear and our own story to locate a connection across a nearly insurmountable distance? 

The person right next to you might as well be as distant as the farthest galaxy in the night sky.  Lessen the distance as much as you can.  See what happens.

Distance can be surmounted, and the voyage may be worth it.  Go with the urge.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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October 2017

Volume 18 Issue 5

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