September 23, 2011 — In August, I had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal for a show currently playing in downtown Boston called How Much Is Enough: Our Values in Question. Actually, I attended the rehearsal twice. This worked out well for the performers—the show is audience-interactive, so they needed a live audience during rehearsals to see what the real show would be like—and it was good for me, because I knew immediately at the end of the first show that I needed to experience this more than one time through.
How Much Is Enough is a show is based on questions, roughly grouped around significant periods or elements of a person’s life (such as birth, death, education, and work) and the values that may relate to them. Three performers throw queries out to the audience as a whole, or else enroll an audience volunteer in a more intensive interview.
The questions didn’t pull any punches. Do you pray? They asked. What do you want to have happen with your remains when you die? What would you tell someone who is about to have a child and is afraid? Question after question, audience members responded with what was obviously their best, most personal understanding of truth and meaning. After the show, everything I wanted to say ended with exclamation marks. Look, we get to hear people we don’t know answer questions about what really matters to them! We get to be listened to intently as we talk about the things that have the most meaning for us! More, more, more!
The first rehearsal I attended, with just ten in the audience, was by far my favorite of the two. Even though we had never spoken directly to one other, I felt all the audience members really knew each other by the end. At the same time, I was left with a number of other, unsettling questions, and later, I saw those same questions echoed in the show's Boston Globe review. If we are being listened to “in character,” are we really being listened to? If we’re saying the realest things we know how to say, and performers in turn are sharing their lines from a script, is that an honest bargain? If we really thought about what was going on, would we want to participate at all? At one point, I wanted to take the actors by their shirt collars, give them a little shake, and say, “You’re creating this amazing, wonderful thing here, and at the same time, you’re throwing it all away!”
But was it indeed a waste? I didn’t end up feeling tricked, nor did I feel wrongly exposed. What allowed the performance to generate an atmosphere of respect and camaraderie, despite my lingering doubts? What does How Much Is Enough teach us, as practitioners of dialogue, about enabling a social contract that fosters this kind of group experience? About creating the conditions for near-immediate authenticity?
Maybe part of the answer is that there are a lot of people like me, people who long to have these kinds of opportunities for connection. Maybe it’s that when you couple authority with sincere intentions, doors open. Maybe it’s even that a little illusion—handled with delicacy—can move us along toward knowing one other.
How Much Is Enough: Our Values In Question is a production of ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage. It runs through this Sunday, September 25.