Campfire Democracy

The carcass of a wild pig is roasting on a spit over an open fire. Surrounding the fire are the men, women, and children who hope to soon partake of the feast promised by the scents wafting from the drippings falling onto the flames.

As the sunset pales and is overcome by the star-filled night sky, the determination of portion and priority must now be addressed. Is the hunter who struck the fatal blow to have first choice? What about the others in the hunting party that drove the pig to the kill point?

What do we do for the old mother who no longer has a man to hunt for her, or the child whose father was killed in the last hunt?

Were there circumstances beyond control that allowed for the feast? What thanks are to be offered, and what sacrifices were made so that there would be a feast tonight?

As a case is made for each person waiting their turn, it becomes apparent that some order must be created. If only the strong are fed, the group’s numbers will soon dwindle. If only those who are wanting are fed, there will soon be none strong enough for the next hunt. Social order must be established.

Wisdom, strength, and good judgement are necessary, as the delicate balance of life can only be nurtured if the welfare of the entire community is addressed. Thus, the story of the hunt begins.

Each participant in turns tells of their actions, embellishing their strengths and re-enacting the moments. The glory and the first cut will not go to the strongest, but to the one who delivers the most engaging story, performing the ritual in the most dramatic manner and gaining the sympathy and approval of the audience.

Even the old man who hasn’t gone on a hunt in many seasons offers his experience and tells of his most successful moments in the past. The hunger that comes with the time waiting for the food to cook is averted by the tales of the great hunters.

Thus, theatre is born—and community responsibility is built into the creation. Regardless of culture, locale, and technological advancement, theatre and enhanced storytelling exist everywhere, for every culture. Theatre also serves as a repository of historical knowledge, tradition, and values.

Even in times when societies despair and fall to some form of ruin, theatre prevails and provides hope and comfort. For nearly a millennium, the dark ages spread like a dense fog over all of Europe, yet theatre prevailed, not in grand amphitheaters, but in villages and camps everywhere.

In some fashion, mankind has always seen the need to express the collective consciousness and experience and preserve it for those yet to come.

So pervasive is the process, it would be easy to argue that theatre is a fundamental, even an essential part of human existence. And we have drawn that out to an incredible length. While theatre always had a diversionary value to it (staving off the hunger pangs until the pig was roasted), the nuances of the stories have served as a keel to human behavior even in the stormiest of times.

In the 21st century, we have expanded the boundaries of theatre. Or, to be more precise, theatre has expanded far beyond the boundaries of stages and amphitheaters. To some extent, we are surrounded by storytelling. There are theatrics going on everywhere. From our politics to our handheld devices, we have endless diversion and potential messaging that is far more complex than the campfire meeting.

We now have limitless access to stored knowledge and limitless access to diversion. What we have lost is the immediacy and the shared intimacy of community consideration. We are by nature social animals: even in our most primitive examples, we congregate and empower each other by proximity. That bond has always been strengthened when we collected for the storytelling.

But is watching Hamlet on my phone or TV the same as going to the theatre?

Going to a theatre gives us the opportunity to experience empathetic energy. When we see something funny on stage and we collectively laugh, there is a bonding moment. We don’t know if the person next to us is a liberal or a conservative; we only know if they found the moment funny.

When we watch Hamlet, our differences are minimalized and the anxieties, fear, and catharsis we experience is shared with the others watching the play. If we sit in the audience at a play, we place ourselves in a controlled environment, deprive ourselves of outside stimulus, and share a guided moment in mass.

That communal experience is what makes theatre as we know it unique. My experience of watching (spoiler alert) Hamlet’s death is enhanced because of the responses of those around me. The gasps, sighs, and shaking of heads are all felt by my receptors, both conscious and subliminal.

If I laugh at something I see on my phone and send it to a friend, I may be sharing the joke, but I’m not sharing the experience. And the likelihood of sharing it with someone I don’t know, thus providing an opportunity for building community, is basically nonexistent. For us to be an effective society, we must be aware of the diversity of our community. We must accept that there are those who are different and those who we don’t agree with.

Theatre is a way to achieve that. From allowing an old man to revel in his past glory and be rewarded with a prime piece of the pig to my sitting and watching Tracers with both a draft dodger and a Vietnam vet in one room, the experience of theatre enhances us all.

That is the message we have to share. Our very existence relies on our desire to be a community, and there is no better place to start than being open to a new story.  FL

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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