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Bess Rowen Headshot

Giving Us Back Our Imaginations

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Yesterday I purchased a ticket for a Broadway show. I rarely go to Broadway these days, mostly because, as a graduate student, I cannot justify spending so much money on one ticket when I could be seeing several shows for the same price. Every time I buy a ticket for even a discounted Broadway price, I think to myself: why do I still want to do this?

It is at this moment that a quote comes to mind. In an interview with her mentor Paula Vogel in the Spring 2007 issue of BOMB Magazine, Sarah Ruhl says "Take people's money away and give them back their imagination." To clarify, Ruhl is speaking about a specific instance of inspired design through an anecdote about watching one of Anne Bogart's assignments to her students. Ruhl is impressed at how the students rose to the occasion after Bogart told them to "make something out of nothing." The results were apparently amazing.

I certainly agree with Ruhl's sentiment. I have often found that the most creative solutions come not as a result of total freedom, but rather from one or two strict rules. The framework then allows the most creative minds to use the rules to create a completely new system. I have seen lots of fantastic theatre that had no budget to speak of, yet were rich in terms of the passion to produce a work. On an aesthetic level, these plays would have worked differently with a more generous budget, which is not to make a value judgment in either direction, but rather to say that they were forced to be especially creative in a particular staging.

But what if we take Ruhl's quote entirely out of context? When I first read that sentence, I was struck by a double meaning. The original subject was a member of the play's artistic team, but what happens when we think about this in terms of the audience? In other words, let us think about the members of the artistic team as the recipients the audience's money, as opposed to having their own money taken away. As an audience member, then, I pay my money to see a play that will give me back my imagination. Something about this rings true. I am not suggesting that this is the sole purpose that people go to the theatre, but I would like to tease out some of the truth behind this statement.

When I think of the expensive tickets that I purchase, what I am really buying is access to an experience, something that will take me on a journey. When I pay for Wicked and The Lion King it is because I want to see the particular productions of these shows that only their glitz, glamour, and immense budgets could bring to the table. Shows like this combine plot and spectacle in such a way that I feel like some part of my imagination has been re-awakened. When the actors playing the animals of The Lion King enter in the first scene, I know I am witnessing a well-choreographed moment of Julie Taymor's (pre-Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) vision, and it is an immensely fantastic experience.

Obviously, you do not have to go to Broadway to experience these moments, just as you do not have to go all the way to Broadway for expensive tickets. Sleep No More, in Chelsea, Gatz, at the Public Theater, Orlando, at the Classic Stage Company, and Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse were all pricey tickets for productions that have continued to inspire my imagination. I have gladly paid for Sleep No More instead of spending the money on a Broadway ticket, simply because the amazing dream-like space it opens up for me is worth the price of admission every time.

This is not to say that every ticket is worth it! I have paid for tickets to shows that were truly awful, though most of the time the experience of watching a failed show has been an interesting and valuable one for me. This is not to say that I recommend the experience; I do not. And I am also not saying that this experience of "giving you back your imagination" can only occur with an expensive ticket. As I said before, some incredibly creative shows have managed phenomenal performances with almost no budget. In this city, the price of imagination ranges from a song to a designer jacket, and everything in between.

I wonder if Sarah Ruhl thinks about her work like this. Her plays are some of the ones that excite my imagination both on the page and the stage. Her well-crafted worlds are wonderful and beautiful, and I do not mind paying for the opportunity to experience them. Obviously, this idea of quantifiable prices for imaginative experiences is an exercise in thought. In a perfect world, where all theatres would consistently house good productions, the question of seeing theatre might end up being: how much is your imagination worth to you? We do not live in such a world, and a higher price does not necessarily mean a higher experiential value. But sometimes I still treat myself to the pricier offerings, ever hoping that they will both give me back my imagination and build it anew, all for the price of admission.