Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cost of One's Convictions

Last year's visit to an audiologist confirmed that, like many people my age, I'm starting to lose the ability to hear certain high-pitched frequencies. This was not the first time I've worried about a potential hearing deficit. As restaurants have become increasingly cacophonic environments (dramatically increasing the levels of peripheral noise), I've often found it difficult to hear what the person seated across the table from me is trying to say.

The first time I asked my physician to check my hearing, he ran some quick tests and told me there was no discernible problem. "Have you ever been to a restaurant named Piano Zinc?" he asked. I told him that I had eaten there and found it horribly noisy. He then made a rather curious confession. "I ate there last week with my partner and didn't hear everything," he said. "But, to be honest, I wasn't listening!"

In a scene from 1969's award-winning musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776), John Adams asks: "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" In the years since cable news became populated with what Spiro Agnew once referred to as the "nattering nabobs of negativity," there has been a woeful tendency for pundits to talk over each other while showing no interest in listening to what anyone else has to say. Being right is no longer important. What matters is how skillfully one can hog any available camera time while loudly dominating a segment of any news program.

Have we lost the art of listening to one another? Or have we become accustomed to living in a soundscape so full of noise pollution that we've learned how to filter out a surprisingly amount of clatter from the wretched clutter of our daily lives?

In March 2015, Harriet Partridge published a lovely photo and sound essay on The Spaces entitled 10 Buildings With Extraordinary Acoustics: Where To Find a Sonic Surprise. One of the locations she chose to highlight was St. Paul's Cathedral in London, a structure whose acoustics provide an excellent example of a "whispering gallery" (an acoustical wonder that may be an unintentional benefit of a building's architecture).

How does this peculiar phenomenon work? A visitor to St. Paul's (where this particular effect was discovered) who whispers something at the gallery wall can be heard on the other side of the building's 33-meter diameter dome. The following 15-minute video features a performance at St. Paul's of Samuel Bordoli's "Live Music Sculpture 3" as well as showing some of the visual splendor to be found inside the cathedral.

As you can see, some people are seated on chairs, paying careful attention to the musicians who are performing for them. Others wander through the open space, as oblivious to the live entertainment as if they were standing in an elevator listening to Muzak.

Over the course of its long history, The Church of England has survived numerous political crises. In 1534 (in his desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn), England's King Henry VIII rebelled against Pope Clement VII's control of the English church. Henry eventually assumed the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, on December 17, 1538, was excommunicated by Pope Paul IIIRobert Bolt's 1960 drama, A Man For All Seasons, treated the power struggle far more seriously than Howard Brenton's 2010 drama, Anne Boleyn (which was recently staged by the Marin Theatre Company).

Designed by England's most famous architect (Christopher Wren), St. Paul's is one of London's most famous historic landmarks. Built after the Great Fire of London (1666), the cathedral was consecrated in 1697 and officially declared by Parliament to be complete on December 25, 1711. Although bombed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, the physical damage to the building was subsequently repaired.

In recent years, London has become one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, a global financial center. But not everyone is happy with the concentration of wealth within the top 1% of the population. In October of 2011, after Occupy London's demonstrators had been evicted from their original encampment outside the London Stock Exchange, they moved to the land on which St. Paul's Cathedral sits (smack in the center of the square mile that defines the City of London). Their noisy presence caused a political problem which struck at the heart of the Anglican church, calling into question the institution's moral high ground as well as its responsibility to the community it serves.

Mike Ryan, Paul Whitworth, and J. Michael Flynn
in a scene from Temple (Photo by: David Allen) 

Unlike so many historical dramas involving the 1,400-year-old Church of England, Temple (a new play by Steve Waters which is receiving its United States premiere from the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley) deals with this particular crisis of conscience when, for the first time in its history, St. Paul's Cathedral closed its doors to the public. In fact, three of the characters in Temple are fictionalized versions of men who, as key church officials, were involved in the internal deliberations triggered by the closure of St. Paul's Cathedral:
  • The Dean (based on the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles) is the kind of technically illiterate person who tries to avoid confrontations and has trouble making decisions. With an academic's tendency to split hairs while examining both sides of a situation, he is ill-equipped to deal with the real-life demands of the police and political protesters surrounding St. Paul's. As a result of the Occupy London crisis, Knowles became the first Dean ever to resign his post and the first Dean to close St. Paul's Cathedral.
  • The Bishop (based on the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, Bishop of London) is a skilled politician within religious circles, who serves as the Bishop for the entire metropolitan London area. His "throne" is at St. Paul's Cathedral, where he has presided over major events such as state weddings and royal funerals.
  • The Canon Chancellor (based on the Reverend Giles Fraser) is a journalist who frequently appears on the BBC. Fraser publicly supported the Occupy London movement but, unlike the technically challenged Dean, knew how to use Twitter as an effective messaging tool.
Mike Ryan and Paul Whitworth in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen)

In marked contrast to the three men whose job it is to guide the spiritual and political life of the church are three women whose job it is to get things done.
  • The City Attorney (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) arrives on her way to a meeting, determined to get the Dean to buy into the City of London's plan to oust the protesters (their encampment was eventually evicted without violence by a court order at the end of February 2012). She knows how to use muffins as a negotiating tool.
  • The Virger (Sharon Lockwood), is a member of the church's staff whose duties resemble those of a stage manager during religious worship services. While the virger often precedes religious officers as they move around the church,  virgers rarely speak during a religious service.
  • The P.A. (Sylvia Burboeck) is newly arrived on the scene. At a loss to find where critical supplies are stored and intimidated by the task of becoming the Dean's personal assistant, she is extremely nervous about being asked for her advice as a lay person.
Sylvia Burboeck and Paul Whitworth in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen)

The facts upon which Waters based his play are easy to research online and essentially position the church between a rock and a hard place.
  • During the Occupy crisis, The City of London sought out the Church's support, demanding that the activists be evicted from the Church's grounds. Although the Church cited safety issues as its reason for closing St. Paul's during the protest (which lasted nearly three months), an unexpected side effect of its decision was a loss in tourism revenue. 
  • Caught in a crisis of conscience, the Canon Chancellor claimed that evicting the protesters would constitute an act of violence performed in the name of the Church. Soon after he resigned his post, news of his resignation rapidly spread across the Twitterverse.
Paul Whitworth and Mike Ryan in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen) 

Temple portrays a church leadership painfully sheltered from reality, unable to hear and understand the frustrations of its parishioners, and severely challenged when forced to deal with a rebellious segment of the public. As a playwright, Waters was intrigued by the dramatic conflict roiling around “an ancient institution surrounded by the most globalized forces.” As he explains:
"This is a play about work, about how we keep alive in our work. I wanted to write about how everything is done through euphemism, the way English life works through indirectness, tacitness, things that go without saying.  I wanted to write someone who, in the end, is quite lacking in ego. The play takes the Dean’s doubts and vacillations seriously. It’s an interesting problem for a playwright and an actor (a central character who sets his face against having an ego). What happened in St. Paul’s was clearly a disaster, a succumbing to pressure and power in an organization designed to think beyond the demands of money and might.

The resurgence of right-wing politics is a distorted reflection of the anger that drove Occupy to try and pull the emergency brake world-wide. There’s so much more hope in their vision as compared to Donald Trump, Prime Minister Teresa May, and the like. I was moved and inspired by the ideas and passion that drove Occupy. I think it was very interesting how Occupy conducted themselves because they refused to have representation (which meant that it was impossible to have a conversation because of that sense that, as soon as someone is elected to speak for others, they become corrupted). I felt my imagination being kindled by those professional and personal crises and felt they somehow spoke to a wider crisis in our values and our institutions.”
The final scene from Temple (Photo by: David Allen) 

Directed by Tom Ross on a unit set designed by Richard Olmsted (with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Jeff Rowlings), Aurora's production drew strength from Paul Whitworth's puzzled portrayal of the Dean, Mike Ryan's impassioned portrayal of the conflicted Canon Chancellor, and J. Michael Flynn's appearance as the Bishop of London (which, for some bizarre reason, reminded me of Vincent Price in his later years). While Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Sharon Lockwood appeared as the outspoken City Attorney and Virger, I found myself most intrigued with Sylvia Burboeck's characterization of the Dean's confused and struggling personal assistant (who was painfully aware that she was in way over her head).

Performances of Temple continue through May 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

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