Several days ago, I had the pleasure of attending a theatre production presented at Virginia Tech. The production was comprised of three one-act plays by Harold Pinter. To say that “Pinter Works” was beautifully produced and performed and left us a little breathless is an understatement.

But, the thing that got me thinking even before the plays began was the foreword in the playbill by Dr. Patricia Raun, Director of the School of Performing Arts and Cinema. Patty was inspired by some other fine minds that have tried to articulate the contribution that artists make to society.

She quoted Albert Einstein who said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” But at the heart of her foreword were excerpts from a speech given last fall by Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

Shalwitz was speaking of theatre but his comments encompass film or any of the other arts as well. He identified seven reasons why theatre matters to mankind and the societies we live in. They really resonated with me and strike very close to the mushy center of our current economic, social and political environment. I wanted to share them with you and, like Dr. Raun, I offer excerpts. (The complete speech is well worth reading and can be found at the Woolly Mammoth website.)

First, theatre does no harm. While we’re engaged in making or attending theatre, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, violence, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.

Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need, call it an instinct. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can’t help it. It’s part of what makes us human.

Third, theatre brings people together. In an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.

Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don’t get resolved, and what happens when they do. We can imagine the outcomes of various choices we might make in our own lives.

Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology, about leadership and government and about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries.

Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. As theatres open, new audiences start flooding in, new restaurants open, jobs are created and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity.

Finally, the seventh reason that theatre matters is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. And isn’t this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead?

Okay, this is me talking now. In my simple view, if by allowing the arts, whether theatre or other form, into our lives we open our minds to our own possibilities and those of our fellow man, this is something that deserves our attention. That it can be one of the most economical forms of human expression and is available to everyone regardless of class or culture – through an almost endless array of media and technologies in our current age – should put the arts on the short list of any society’s must-haves.

As I climb down off my stump, what are your thoughts? Do you agree that exposing ourselves to the arts improves society? Do you think, as a country, we do enough to promulgate the arts to everyone? I invite you to comment because this is a place where civilized public discourse (see item #4) is welcomed and encouraged!