The Incalculable Power of Community
Issue 172 — July 12, 2021
Last week, I attended my first unmasked, in person, un-social distanced theatrical performance, albeit outdoors. It was pure bliss.
The play was, of course, the thing, and an entertaining one at that. But being in a community of happy theater goers was by far the essence of my joy.
A friend had invited me to join her and another woman for Shakespeare in the Park’s performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.
Shakespeare in the Park is a quintessentially New York event. In non-pandemic times, people line up as much as 24 hours in advance to get free tickets. During my morning walks, I’d often pass by a queue of hopefuls who’d spent the night sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for their chance to snag the precious opportunity to see a performance.
This year, though, tickets were obtained contactlessly by digital lottery. And so, another beloved tradition was disrupted by COVID-19.
Perhaps that change to impersonal ticketing made it even more exciting to feel the crowd swelling around us. Despite the looming storm clouds, spirits were undampened.
Masks were required for entry, but we were allowed to take them off once seated. Staff checked proof of vaccination as we entered and matched it with our identification to make sure we were showing our own validation, then released us to enter the amphitheater. Thank you, science, and public health measures for getting us out of pandemic hibernation and back to human contact.
I don’t think I have ever seen a happier group of people.
I felt it too. Honestly, I’m not a great fan of farce and slapstick. “Merry Wives” is far from my favorite Shakespeare play. But this production was a perfect “coming out party” for the beloved summer theater experience we’d all been yearning for. It’s a delightfully creative adaptation of the “Merry Wives” tale of the scheming ne’er-do-well Falstaff and the smarter, craftier women who played him like a drum. With, of course, signature Shakespearean subplots woven throughout.
This contemporary version of the play was set in a Harlem community populated largely by immigrants from West Africa. The storefront staging included a braiding salon, apartments, and a laundromat. As the blurb says, it was “a celebration of Black joy, laughter, and vitality. A New York story about the tricks of the heart, performed in the heart of the city.”
Community. That’s what I felt sitting together with a thousand or so people I didn’t know.
Though the only people I knew were those I came with, soon I felt the audience responding as one. One in our intentions, one in our attention, and one in our shared laughter and enjoyment.
One community however did not seem to be represented. I noticed an almost empty section. As my friends scurried east to beat the impending storm after the play ended, and I headed west to catch a subway home, I asked a complete stranger walking next to me why the empty seats. She told me the section had been set aside for unvaccinated people.
Whether those who were not vaccinated aren’t fond of Shakespeare, were annoyed at being placed in a separate location, or whether the vast majority of New Yorkers are vaccinated so there were simply not that many unvaccinated people around, I don’t know.
But I do know this.
We humans crave community. Adam Grant in his New York Times article explains the science of it: “Research has found that people laugh five times as often when they’re with others as when they’re alone. Even exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on a train is enough to spark joy.”
And though Kara Swisher’s piece published just under Grant’s had a different take, declaring, “Sorry, We Aren’t Going Back to the Movies,” her point that tech has reshaped industries is certainly valid also. None are more disrupted than entertainment, which in some instances might never come back as their former configurations. But I am betting something the actress Kathleen Turner told me about her own love of live theater will prevail. (Cue her unmistakable throaty voice.)
“I know exactly what draws people to the theater,” Kathleen said, pronouncing each syllable distinctly. “It is co-mu-ni-ty.”
Think about the parts of the word as she emphasized it. “Co” or “com,” a prefix meaning “with,” “commune” from the Latin meaning “common,” and the dictionary definition of community as a group sharing common interests or history.
The shared experience with this instant theater community was memorable, made more so by the prediction of severe thunderstorms. While the weather map projected showers and thunderstorms all evening, aside from a few scattered drops, we never had to open umbrellas or put on our raincoats. That was fortunate because it was so hot and humid that rain would actually have felt good and raincoats would have felt suffocating.
The big safety concern was a lightning storm which could be quite dangerous. The play’s closing scene was over the top, with costumes representing spirits of various powers punctuating the failure of Fallstaff’s intentions to bilk the Merry Wives in hilarious ways, while various subplots of lovers paired off happily in the end.
Then all at once, the storefronts parted to reveal the park’s giant trees shimmering in backdrop. The beautiful confluence of nature with human ingenuity made me catch my breath.
At that exact moment, came the announcement that there would be no curtain call because we were about to have a lightning storm. And sure enough we did.
The skies opened, the lightening flashed, and the communal evening became even more memorable thanks to that dramatic ending even Shakespeare couldn’t have orchestrated.
How are you feeling about getting back into in-person community? Are you ready to move from Netflix to movie theaters? Under what circumstances? What digital communities have you built during the past year and a half? Let me know how it goes for you these days of re-entry.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.