I know it takes artistry for “techies” to create a world out of paint and canvas, light and sound. I know it takes roughly two hours of rehearsal for every minute onstage, because an actor has to BE somebody else, convincingly, night after night, staying true to the playwright’s intention and the director’s vision while at the same time adjusting on the fly to the vagaries of live performance: A baby crying. A bat flittering in the lights. A famous person in the house.
Nowadays, a live theater experience usually is arranged so audience members sit in a dark space and watch the action onstage through a window (the “fourth wall”). Sometimes the audience participates, although interactive theater can be problematic. Sometimes, even in movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind), the characters acknowledge they’re being watched.
Bottom line, though, performers and audiences in the modern theater usually share the same time and place on different planes of existence. At my theater, in fact, actors were required to get out of makeup and costume before they could go into the house. Why? Because we wanted the magic to last beyond the performance. We wanted people to keep on feeling what we’d worked so hard to help them feel. We wanted the characters to go on singing in the audiences’ minds, to go on teaching them how to be human beings, without reminding them that we were making it all up.
What’s my point? Something happened in New York City on November 18 when vice president-elect, Mike Pence, attended a performance of Hamilton, a musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The show, with music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, was inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow.
Alexander Hamilton was a big deal. He convinced New Yorkers to ratify the U.S Constitution. He was the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, and his policies strengthened the economic position of the federal government, which bolstered the economy of the fledgling nation. His work as an attorney led to the creation of the judicial review system. He co-founded the Bank of New York.
Hamilton, the musical, is a big deal, too. Hamilton won a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11. Snippets of Hamilton were performed at the White House. In May, the show was sold out eight months in advance. Tickets to Hamilton are supposed to start at $139 with premium seats starting at $549, but Hamilton is such a hot ticket that some secondary-market tickets are selling for $2,500 each (although matinee tickets are available for less).
Something else that’s a big deal is being second-in-command of the United States. Mike Pence will take on that job on January 20, 2017—but I'd like to set aside the new job and focus on what happened to theatergoer Mike Pence last Friday at Hamilton.
The show was over. The audience was still clapping, but Mr. Pence was on his feet ready to go, no doubt being urged along by the Secret Service. As Pence was leaving, however, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, called out to him. Pence stopped. Dixon launched into a statement that asked Pence to make sure the new administration supported diversity. Pence was periodically booed—or perhaps Dixon was being booed—during the interlude.
Somebody lost no time in telling president-elect Trump what had happened, and Trump lost no time castigating the cast on Twitter: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!"
It was like somebody threw a grenade into social media. Everybody had an opinion. Theater people whooped it up about free speech. Memes appeared:
Granted, it’s no surprise that LGBT, POC, non-Christians, differently-abled people, women, and non-Christians in the United States were horrified at best and terrified at worst at the outcome of this month’s election. A couple of my gay friends, for example, were accosted by Trump supporters who viewed the election as permission to unleash their inner crazy person. I am certain Mr. Dixon felt righteous delivering the people’s demands to the king, as it were, from a safe place, surrounded onstage by his peeps. Mr. Dixon said his piece in front of an audience that had just seen musical theater history. His words hit Pence, who stood like a deer in the headlights.
Let me be clear: politically, Mr. Pence and I diverge at “go.” Pence was a Conservative radio host (he called himself "Rush Limbaugh on decaf"). He’s a supporter of the Tea Party. He supports education but not public schools or teachers’ unions. He supports gun rights and the coal industry but not the Environmental Protection Agency. He favors low taxes and low wages. He wanted to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana. He opposes abortion. He opposes any expansion of rights for LGBT people. He’s not a fan of science either—in 2001, Pence said, “smoking does not kill.” I abhor every single one of these positions.
So why was Mike Pence the player in this five-minute drama who moved the needle on my Empathy-o-Meter? Because Pence didn’t attend Hamilton as the vice president-elect. He attended as a dad taking his daughter to a show. Unfortunately, instead of being allowed to sit in the dark like everybody else and leave the theater humming show tunes like everybody else, maybe pick up a T-shirt, Pence was sucker-punched.
Some say Pence isn’t like everybody else because he’s the future vice-president. By that reasoning, we can all expect to be accosted wherever we go. A teacher will have to explain a math problem in the produce aisle. A physician at a cocktail party will have to diagnose somebody’s symptoms. A plumber out for a fish fry will have to take a look at a busted coupling. Do these kinds of interactions already occur? Sure, but I’d bet money the teacher, the doctor, and the plumber don’t like being off-duty and then having somebody bust into their personal space. And I bet the event doesn't get shared with the known universe.
Did Pence have it coming, being a person who's thrust himself into the public eye? After all, movie stars are stalked and mobbed and so forth—it's the price you pay for fame, right?
How about if we try a little empathy exercise from the theater? How about if we put ourselves in Pence’s shoes?
You're Mike Pence. You endure months of a brutal political campaign. Sleep becomes an option. Your family and home become Kansas while you’re flying all over Oz; like Dorothy, all you want to do is go home. But you made a commitment, so you roll with it.
You’re a Midwestern guy. You haven’t spent a lot of time in big cities. You haven’t gone to many Broadway shows—why would you?
Then you are elected vice president of the United States. Your daughter wants to see Hamilton. You can afford the tickets now. You know you’re going to be pretty busy for the next four years starting in January, so you figure you’ll take a night off and spend it with your daughter and her cousin.
Hamilton blows you away. You never thought of the Founding Fathers as being…cool. The lyrics make history come alive, which you dig despite the cussing. You get to the end of the show and you’re feeling pretty fly. Maybe you have a tear in your eye. You’re proud to be an American. You get why everybody has been talking about this show.
Toward the end of the curtain call, your Secret Service detail lets you know it’s time to go. You get up.
Then you hear your name. It’s one of the actors. Is he going to thank you for coming? You mentally gear up to be gracious—should you wave?—while at the same time conveying to the actor that you’ve got to bail.
But then somebody in the audience boos. More than one somebody. The secret service guys move in, ready for anything, The actor says something about your administration representing everybody. And you think, Really? NOW? It feels like this actor, this Dixon guy, is talking forever, even though it’s only a couple of minutes. When he’s done, the Secret Service hustles you out to the car. You wouldn’t repeat the words they’re muttering.
As you’re being driven home, your daughter says, “Dad, I’m sorry that happened.” Your body flushes. Unbelievable. You were having a great time, but in the back of your mind you also were thinking maybe you’d take a closer look at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Maybe you could talk to a couple of people in Congress to make sure the NEH and NEA funding doesn’t dry up, since the president-elect is kind of “meh” about theater.
But now? No way. Theater people are unpredictable. They don’t know how things work. They bust a guy’s chops in front of his daughter. And how dare they suggest you and Donald Trump won’t be their leaders! The two of you got elected, didn’t you? You text Donald. He tweets in your defense.
You slam shut the door in your mind that Hamilton opened up, and you vow never to open it up again.
Could this be how it felt? Mr. Pence said on Fox Sunday morning that he would leave it to others to decide whether a Broadway theater was the appropriate venue for Dixon's message.
I’d like to weigh in: No. It wasn’t.
There are many ways to convey ideas, to persuade. Maybe Mr. Dixon figured this was his shot, and he didn’t want to throw it away.
But turning the theater into a bully pulpit from which you demand that somebody in the audience treat everybody fairly is an ironic move: Mr. Dixon demanded equal treatment but did not extend that courtesy to Mr. Pence, who, on Friday night, deserved to be treated like everybody else in that house who bought a ticket. Nobody else in that theater was called out—and despite the noble words, Pence most assuredly was called out.
Alexander Hamilton, who did exactly the same thing to his detractors, knows exactly what I'm talking about.