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How Has Theatre Made You Smarter?

Date: Dec 27, 2017

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Christina Trivigno, TDF's Associate Director of Digital Strategy and a bona fide theatre nerd.

Today's topic: A celebration of the wide variety of facts seeing shows has taught us

Raven Snook: This Geek Out/Freak Out was inspired by an experience my daughter had during a math competition, when students were asked to calculate how many minutes there are in a year. While her teammates scribbled numbers furiously, as a Rent fan she was able to immediately answer: "525,600." (I'm thankful Jonathan Larson actually figured it out for "Seasons of Love" and didn't just guess at the number!) That got me wondering: What have I learned from going to shows? Obviously, theatre teaches us empathy and all about the human condition. But it also schools us in less abstract constructs, like history, science, and math. At this point I've been going to the theatre for way longer than I ever went to school. So I guess it's not surprising that it's still educating me. Just the other week, I learned about New York City's "master builder" Robert Moses from the musical Bulldozer. I actually thought I knew a lot about him, but I didn't realize his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway would have cut right through Washington Square Park. Have you seen a show recently that taught you something you didn't know?

Christina Trivigno: The biggest one for me right now would have to be Come From Away. Living in New York City during 9/11, I remember the airspace getting shutdown, but my memory was a lot foggier about what happened to all of those planes that were in the air at the time. And Latin History for Morons was practically tailor-made for this conversation. John Leguizamo is highlighting all the things about Latino history you were either never taught, or maybe you touched on in class but promptly forgot after you finished taking that test.

Raven: Latin History for Morons actually does feel a lot like school -- just a lot funnier and rated R. For me, it all went by so fast I had trouble retaining most of it, although I definitely got that the Conquistadors were rapists.

Christina: Latin History is certainly dense writing, but I think everyone will remember at least one goblet. I walked away most fascinated by the notion that the spread of disease played such a big part in quests for domination. (I am just jaded enough to imagine all invaders were rapists.)

Raven: Ah yes, disease! Something else you can learn about from theatre. My daughter mentioned that she was the only kid in her sixth grade health class who knew what syphilis was because of a Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson lyric. Do you recall drawing on your theatre knowledge in school at any point?

Christina: I do remember thinking in religious instruction that I already knew everything about the Bible because of musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Children of Eden. Such a weird thing to be cocky about: Why yes, I know all of Joseph's brothers' names!

Raven: History seems to be the most popular subject to theatricalize, although writers frequently take some dramatic license.

Christina: Assuming truth on Broadway is a whole other conversation!

Raven: Totally. And yet, while I know I have to take what I learn from history-based shows with an entire shaker of salt, they often inspire me to do further research -- or at least read the Wikipedia entry. I doubt I'd even know the name Eva Peron if it weren't for Evita. Andrew Jackson would just be that president on the $20 bill if it weren't for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And though I had heard about Japanese internment camps, Allegiance enhanced my understanding of what Japanese-Americans went through during World War II.

That said, history is complicated and messy and full of tangents. Playwrights have to condense and simplify to make a piece of art. Sometimes I feel cheated if a show ends up having little bearing on reality…but maybe expecting to be educated by a history-based production is an unfair expectation. So, is history really what we learn most about in theatre? Can you think of any math or science you learned from shows? Proof was about a mathematical genius but I don't remember learning any actual math from it.

Christina: I feel like I need to run out and see That Physics Show before it closes to give a really good answer. And I missed Alton Brown's Eat Your Science, but I do love his TV show, so if it was similar I'm sure there was a lot to learn. I do remember learning some fancy big words from Camelot when I was young. I remember my mom remarking that, "Vivisect is a $20 word for an eight-year old." And I've certainly learned a smattering of phrases and words in other languages from shows like In the Heights (abuela, alabanza) and Cabaret (ich bin euer conférencier) -- that may be spelled wrong but I can definitely sing it! I promise, I have seen several plays in my life, but I think musicals just make retention easier.

Raven: Yes. Even though plays may be delve more deeply into subjects -- check out this roundup of science-themed plays -- I think musicals are better at teaching us factoids. Lyrics lend themselves to communicating quick bits of information. That's why Sesame Street and other children's TV shows use songs to teach basic math and word skills. Honestly, the only reason I can identify nouns, interjections, and conjunctions; understand how electricity functions; or recite the preamble to the Constitution is because of Schoolhouse Rock. No wonder one of their most prolific writers, Lynn Ahrens, went on to write the Broadway musicals Ragtime, Anastasia, and Once on This Island!

What has theatre taught you? Drop some knowledge in the comments!


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.