Sunday column:

December 21st, 2014

Today’s column is here, a holiday-themed twofer of horrible houseguests and what to give the guy at the gym who lets you in without paying.

I’m also going to be speaking this afternoon at the Sunday Assembly, a humanist congregation that meets at 45 Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, at 4pm today about what a humanist “Xmas” might look like. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Sunday column: Giving edition

December 14th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. It’s about gift-giving, surprise! I still think this Perspectives piece is one of the better things I’ve written on the topic:

Giving gifts serves symbolic functions—cementing relationships, celebrating life transitions—as well as the practical one of providing people with stuff they need. And this is at the crux of today’s etiquette dilemmas: For the first time ever, most of us have too much stuff and not enough money.

How are you handling gift-giving this season? My husband and I rarely buy each other gifts. The things we like–old paperback mysteries for him, art and clothes for me–are so idiosyncratic that we have to shop for ourselves. We buy each other little food treats quite often, but not actual presents.

We’re visiting my mother in Missouri this weekend, and I’d brought her a big bag of halvah because you can’t get halvah in the Ozarks. (My mother knows this for a fact because she called the only synagogue in Springfield and asked the rabbi if he knew where she could score any, a conversation that must have been truly epic.) But my mother’s taste buds have changed, apparently, because old age is a curse, and now she doesn’t like halvah.

I am getting ready to head over to her nursing home now and I suspect we might be having a difficult conversation about Christmas. My mother is almost completely incapacitated, and on Medicaid. For Christmas this year I will buy her the new shoes she wants, and a month of physical therapy, which she enjoys but which Medicaid won’t pay for anymore, because she is not improving.

No gift I can give her will make up for the fact that she cannot give to anyone, or do for anyone, any more. No gift can make up for the pain of being always a recipient, never a giver.

Miss Conduct interlude: What about the holidays works/doesn’t work for you?

December 10th, 2014

What about the holiday season works, or doesn’t work, for you?

What parts do you love and what do you hate? What do you enjoy and what do you dread? And what do you do to try to maximize the good parts and minimize the chores?

I’m doing a talk on Sunday, December 21 for the Boston Sunday Assembly, a humanist/atheist congregation. The assembly meets from 4-6pm at the Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn Street. I’ll be talking about Christmas, its joys and discontents, and alternative celebrations. Come join! But in the meantime, share with me your personal joys and discontents of the season.

Miss Conduct talkback (and discount code!) for CST’s “Arabian Nights”

December 8th, 2014


Cast of ARABIAN NIGHTS. Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography.

Central Square Theater, known for its science-themed plays, offers a change of pace with “The Arabian Nights.” This is their traditional holiday/family show, and it’s absolutely wonderful, ingeniously designed and engineered. Look at that gorgeous roc!

I’ll be doing a talkback after this Thursday’s performance, about storytelling and leadership. Blog readers can get 20% of tickets to all performances (but come Thursday! and stay for my enlightening, entertaining, and brief talk!) with the discount code ROBIN.

I hope to see you there!

Sunday column: Holidays are here edition

December 7th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and we’ve got our first holiday question, this one about a “sibling” (left determinedly gender-neutral by the letter writer, who strove mightily to avoid giving any context at all) who won’t host or help out in any way during the holidays.

How does your family get on during the holidays?

I have eight adult cousins who are all brothers and sisters, and who live in various parts of the US with two main clusters around DC and the Ozarks, and I’ve always admired how they handle things, especially their determination not to get trapped in traditions for the sake of traditions. If one family (seven of the eight are married, and six of the couples have children) decides to visit in-laws on Thanksgiving for a change, there are no hurt feelings. This year, the cousin with the newest baby decided to bring her to meet the family on Halloween, rather than Thanksgiving or Christmas, because travel is easier and distractions fewer. It’s minimal drama, maximal crafting of good memories, especially for all the kids.

Chris Rock on comedy and cell phones

December 4th, 2014

Everyone I know and read has been posting this Chris Rock interview and wow, I can see why. Chris Rock is the smartest man in the world and we should let him do whatever the hell he wants.

The interview, conducted by Frank Rich, covers a lot of territory, from race to parenthood to money. Rock also talks show business, of course, and the chilling effect that smart phones have had on standup comedy:

A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.

I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.

Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?

It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

I pushed back on this, mentally, at first, because my knee-jerk response is to blow off anything that even smacks of a whine about “political correctness.” This instinct is usually a sound one, especially when dealing with comedians. I’ve met plenty who would rather accuse you of having no sense of humor than consider that their joke might not have been funny, and who can’t tell the difference between genuine just-heard-God’s-own-truth laughter and the nervous, tittering, just-heard-a-mother-superior-fart laughter.

But Rock is right, as usual. Some comics may merely bemoan not being able to use race and sex slurs onstage, but smartphones could have a chilling effect in other ways. I used to do standup for a while in the mid-90s, and had Twitter and smartphones been around back then, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I had a day job doing publicity for a theater company, and while an organization like that doesn’t care if you do creative stuff in your off-hours, my boss might have cared if he’d known I was making jokes about him, if Twitter had been there to make him care. How many other wannabe comedians have day jobs? You think “edgy material,” nowadays, you think of hot-button race and gender stuff, but frankly, for any given comedian, who knows what the hot-button material is? Maybe it’s talking about their families of origin, or day jobs, or the church they go to, or what their childhood was like. Something they don’t want to have be part of their Permanent Internet Record, not yet.

Chris Rock makes another point:

And by the way: An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far. No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.

Yep. Audiences have only one source of power in the audience-comic transaction, but it’s the most potent core-of-the-sun power there is. The power not to laugh. That’s what you do with the guy who’s making rape jokes onstage. If you want better comedians, you have to have better audiences. This is harder. It’s harder to control your own instinctive, etiquette-trained nervous giggle than it is to shame someone on Twitter. But if you want other people to modify their behavior, you may have to modify yours as well. With bad comics, stony silence is the only appropriate response.

Thinky links

December 1st, 2014

Around the holiday season there’s not quite as much science-themed entertainment, but what a lot of thought-provoking articles on art, science, storytelling, and the self have come out lately.

Well, there is one bit of holiday time science fun–NPR’s Science Friday broadcasts an edited recording of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Makes a nice family tradition for us! And perhaps it will for you, too. Have a listen. They always do a great job.

And more …

Slate’s Willa Paskin looks at how psychology and technology combine to create the fad of “being obsessed with cultural product ‘X.’” My recent obsession was, and still is, the “Song of Fire and Ice” novels. (I finished all five of them two weeks ago, and although I have read other things, I have not wanted to read other things). She tends to attribute what gets obsessed over, and what doesn’t, to hipsterism, basically: You want to show how cool you are by discovering something, sharing it with cool friends, and moving on when the hoi polloi discover it. This may be the case with, say, cronuts, but it seems to me that cultural products that garner geeky obsession, as opposed to being merely a pop fad, are those that reward nitpicky analysis. Usually this happens because the product is complex and open to multiple lines of inquiry–like the “Game of Thrones” books–although it can also happen when the product is so utterly vapid that it provides a fertile field for improv disguised as critique, like those Amazon reviews for Bic pens “For Her.”

More on psychology and media–Americans have always felt guilty about watching TV, although the reasons have changed over time. Is science the solution?

In the late 1980s, research began to indicate the existence of consumer guilt and its useful role in capitalism (terms like “guilt market” were coined). Networks recognized their stake in easing their viewers’s collective guilt and adapted accordingly. According to Brooks, viewers tend to feel better about watching TV if they can feel there’s a mentally stimulating component—hence the eventual meteoric rise of franchises like Law & Order and CSI, with their seemingly infinite capacity to generate spinoffs.

“The police procedural mixes science with crime-solving, so you get the police lab and how they figure out the hairs and DNA or the little clues—and all of that gives it a patina of science,” Brooks said. “And so the viewer thinks, ‘Maybe this isn’t a waste of time; I’m learning something from this.’”

Speaking of what we “should” and “shouldn’t” watch, Pacific Standard–a really excellent magazine–has a great piece about when high culture and low culture have been at odds in American culture, and when they’ve converged. Here’s how Shakespeare fits in:

[I]n 19th-century America, high culture was everywhere. Shakespeare was The Avengers of the 19th century. To say that Shakespeare was The Avengers, though, is to say, in part, that Shakespeare was not high culture at all. Instead, Shakespeare was popular culture—and treated as such. Shakespearean plays, Levine writes, were advertised the way big-budget movies are advertised today—as spectacular draws filled with gore, melodrama, and special effects. Acting styles of the 1800s were broad and explosive; Whitman said that Edmund Kean’s performance “blinded and stunned the beholders, appalled the imagination, and chilled the blood.”

Shakespeare’s plays were treated as popular culture—they appeared on the same bill with farces, acrobatics, and minstrel shows. Just as studios feel comfortable reworking stories about Spider-Man or Batman ad infinitum, so did the theater producers of the time feel comfortable rejiggering Shakespeare, adding a happy ending to Lear, moving characters from play to play, shifting soliloquies or incorporating them into minstrel pastiches.

Yeah, yeah, I know worrying about authorial intent is a critical faux pas nowadays, but I have to say, Shakespeare would have loved that.

One of the most interesting psychological insights/theories of the past 20 years or so is “embodied cognition,” or the idea that our physical world structures, through metaphors, the way we think. Slate has a good piece on this, and my friend Michael Chorost introduces the concept and some of its current controversies in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Kat McGowan writes in Aeon about the human instinct for imitation:

Other animals sometimes copy and can learn from one another. But only humans imitate indiscriminately, persistently, and at very high accuracy. We’re compulsive about it. Even before babies can walk, they start imitating adults. In the 1930s, a pair of psychologists raised an infant chimp alongside their own baby in an attempt to understand both species better. The chimp raised in this family (and others in other such experiments later in the century) never behaved much like a human. The human child, on the other hand, soon began knuckle-walking, biting, grunting and hooting – just like his new sibling.

The article goes on to argue that progress–however defined, really–is the result not so much of innovation as imitation: “It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying.”

Finally, another Science Friday piece (with transcript, if you’d rather read than listen) about the collaboration of Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver and his dedication to bringing science and the visual arts together:

Klüver came along just when Tinguely had begun thinking about this work, which was to become his most famous act of destruction. Homage to New York was an extraordinary contraption, a weird assemblage of small machines that would self-destruct one by one at preset times, sparking and smoking to an accompanying musical sound track while it rolled around haphazardly until it completely blew up in, as Klüver put it, “one glorious act of mechanical suicide.”

Today’s column: Call nine-wine-wine edition

November 30th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question is from a “grandma” who is concerned that her daughter is too tense and raises her voice too much with the “cuties.” What should grandma say?

I should have used this question in my exams back when I was teaching psychology, because if you don’t immediately realize that the daughter’s tension is probably connected to her mother’s presence and reduces as soon as Grandma goes back home, you weren’t paying attention. It’s called the Hawthorne Effect: Observing a behavior can change that behavior.

The first question is from a couple who regularly get inveigled (I don’t regularly write “inveigled,” so that there was a real thrill) into picking up the tab for another couple’s pricey wine habit. They just needed someone to officially let them off the hook from their excessive notions of hospitality and fear of seeming cheap, so I did that. I hate when people feel guilty or ashamed for spending their money in accordance with financial reality and their personal priorities.

Incidentally, did any of you happen to hear this story when it broke–the guy who ordered a bottle of wine for “thirty-seven fifty” that turned out to cost $3,750? Better call Saul!

Scheduling problems

November 28th, 2014

A friend of mine posted on Facebook earlier this week,

Why do all the theater companies in Greater Boston do all their “family friendly” stuff in November and December? Most of it isn’t even holiday-related. Don’t they know there’s a vast expanse of time from January to May, which is when families actually have time and are looking for stuff to do?

What a great question! Theater companies ought to take it under consideration. So should you, as the artistic director of your own life, when you’re making social plans. Everyone’s booked solid in December, and then come long, dark January and February, with no real holidays and no special events and very few people traveling. Those are great months to throw parties! Don’t send your invites until after Christmas, though, or they’ll disappear into the general slush pile.

Thanksgiving

November 27th, 2014

I asked another tourist to take this picture for me at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History when we visited D.C. earlier this fall. The Human Origins wing has truly beautiful sculptures of early hominims, including this one of a homo heidelbergensis posed on the floor, so that you can be photographed with him. That right there, simple as it is, is fantastic science theater.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be grateful to your ancestors.

And especially, Tyrion

November 26th, 2014

Do you have a Kindle? What do you think of it? (We’re getting to Tyrion, really.)

I only use mine for travel, because I tend to forget, instantly, anything I read on it. Straight into the memory hole it goes. Am I alone in this? Reading on a Kindle doesn’t involve the physical acts of handling a book, feeling the quality of the paper on your fingers, noting the typeface. You don’t put a well-loved Kindle book on a shelf in your home, where it sparks a brief recollection every time you see it. For me, anyway, physical engagement with a paper-and-ink book drives the language and ideas that much deeper into my mind.

It took me a while to figure this out. Now I only download public-domain classics and guilty-pleasure kinds of things, for the most part. I did read the “Game of Thrones” books on my Kindle, because one, I obviously wasn’t going to schlep 20 pounds of Machiavellian saga with me everywhere we went, and two, the HBO series keeps me from forgetting the story exists.

And while reading it, I remembered the existence of another book, one of my recent favorites, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which lives on my Kindle and hence not in my memory.

Far From the Tree is about children who, as “apples,” do indeed fall “far from the tree,” by being fundamentally different from their parents in some crucial way. What is the nature of the difference, and how does it affect family relationships? Solomon writes about transgendered folks, the criminal children of law-abiding parents, prodigies, schizophrenics … and dwarfs.

So of course I had to reread that chapter. “All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” says Tyrion. The first and most obvious tragedy of Tyrion’s life is his horrifying mistreatment at the hands of his family, followed by the sad fact that he is an exceptionally romantic and lustful man, with a face and body that does not inspire reciprocal feelings in the ladies.


This dude would do okay with the ladies. Peter Dinklage is handsome. Tyrion Lannister, per the books, is quite hideous: patchwork hair, mismatched eyes, and his battle wound didn’t sexily highlight his cheekbones, it halved his nose. The show also pulls way back on the extent of Sandor Clegane’s burn scars, but never mind. And don’t even get me started on those lame-ass “direwolves” cough*German shepherds*cough*.

Solomon doesn’t note this explicitly, but one of the fascinating aspects of the dwarf chapter is the extent to which dwarf bodies are associated with entertainment. From court jesters to P.T. Barnum to dwarf-tossing, dwarfs have been associated with show business, with laughter and clowning. I don’t think any other disability or physical difference has that association. Dwarfism is a highly visible difference without an accompanying disability*, which keeps dwarfs constantly on display without any moderating sympathy. Dwarfs live in the spotlight.

Many people like to be in the spotlight, of course, and people who spend a lot of time in it often get very, very good at being there, and it’s fun to do stuff you’re good at. This puts dwarfs who want an entertainment career on their own terms in a difficult position. Tyrion’s noble birth precludes him from becoming a court jester, a career he would have excelled at (trenchant and witty, he’s the Jon Stewart of Westeros). In the books, at least, he had become a good tumbler and floor gymnast, but his father believed such capers were beneath the dignity of a Lannister. (How can we even talk about dwarfs without prejudice when our very language is structured around concepts of big versus small, above versus below?) The loathsome Joffrey brings in dwarf clowns who “joust” while riding pigs and dogs to entertain his wedding guests, which sparks a brutal series of power plays between him and Tyrion.

An NPR story on Peter Dinklage reports: “‘He knows he has no skills with the sword,’ Dinklage says, ‘and this is a world that is really deeply violent. Military rules. He would not be able to survive in that world, given his own strength. So he beats people to the punchline — he’s entertaining.’”

Yet look how convoluted Tyrion’s relationship to his own “entertainingness” is. Tyrion is naturally witty. He becomes even more witty by being constantly in the spotlight. He uses his wit as a way to be accepted, to defuse conflict, to prove his value. At the same time he can’t allow that wit to make him seem even more amusingly inconsequential in the eyes of big people, he can’t allow himself to become merely “that funny little man” and nothing else. In the books, at least, Tyrion’s wit occasionally (more than occasionally) gets him in trouble, and the reader feels that this is to some extent the point. Tyrion’s tongue is his only weapon, and a truly good weapon poses some danger even to its owner.

This is part of the tyranny of prejudice–the way it causes people to second-guess their own nature. The self-consciousness that never goes away.

*Achondroplastic dwarfism, though not a disability per se, does come with a range of skeletal and organ vulnerabilities. That’s is part of the reason I’m on board with this theory–Tyrion must be part magical, or he’d be crippled if not dead from the various physical traumas he’s suffered.

Sunday column: Holidays coming and commas, matter, edition

November 23rd, 2014

The subhead to today’s Letters section reads, “Readers respond to a story of a 91-year-old’s return to dating and Miss Conduct.” That … really gives people the wrong impression of my social life these days, I fear.

Today’s actual column is here, and features some gift-giving advice:

… as we move into the gift-giving season, those of us who have gift-able skills–tailors, pastry chefs, massage therapists, copy editors–should always be upfront with friends and family. Our labor and its fruits can be part of the everyday warp and weft of friendship–or it can be done for cash or barter–or given as an official gift, as you intended. But it’s on us to communicate our expectations in advance.

Do you need holiday advice? Write to me today at missconduct@Globe.com!

If you need holiday advice tonight, tune in to WBZ NewsRadio at 10:15 p.m. –I’ll be doing a call-in segment with host Dean Johnson.

And if you don’t mind filtering through a whole bunch of buzzy graphics to get your advice, check out this holiday etiquette “quiz” I did for BU Today.

Are you feeling in the spirit yet, people? I know I am. Going on vacation during the first two months of November is odd. We left the day after Halloween, spent most of our time in warm, sunny Arizona, and then came back to a chilly town all decorated for Christmas. It feels like we skipped forward by a couple of months.

Why this ferret matters

November 21st, 2014

30 seconds of a ferret trying to work up its courage to take a giant leap, h/t Gawker.

It’s a little Friday Ferret Funtime for all my readers, but if I can geek out for a minute, the fact that you’re laughing is what I’m all about. This is why I spend my life reading and writing and talking about psychology and theater. Ferrets and humans are different species with very different bodies and brains. And yet, you know exactly what this little guy is experiencing, don’t you? You know. There is something universal about motivation and the body language we–ferret, dog, human, whatever–use to express our complicated relationship with it. You’re not laughing at this ferret because what it’s doing is incomprehensible and weird. You’re laughing at the familiarity. It’s your kid at bat. It’s you before a job interview. It’s me at my first Open Mic Night.

We are all this ferret.

UPDATE: A friend of mine noted “this reminds me of pursuing a career in the arts.”

“Game of Thrones” and looks-ism

November 20th, 2014

I did take the “Game of Thrones” books on my vacation, and enjoyed them greatly. Our vacation was a peripatetic one–Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott, Phoenix, Lake Havasu, Las Vegas–so it was nice to stay in one fictional world the entire time. While dragons and White Walkers had their appeal, what I primarily enjoyed was the books’ intense psychological realism.

“Game of Thrones”* is about playing the cards you get dealt in life. Except for its RenFest trappings, it’s not the slightest bit mythological or fantastic. It’s much more like “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” at heart: people trying to assert their individuality and gain power in a world that may or may not welcome such efforts. (“I’m Daenerys Targaryen, and I want to smoke some marijuana.”)

One of the cards we get dealt in life is our physical appearance. Looks-ism and body discrimination is a major thing with me, as many of you know, and the way characters like the dwarf Tyrion or the sexually ambiguous Brienne of Tarth get treated will make your blood boil like R’hllor never dreamed. But there is so much more going on than simple discrimination against the different or ugly. Martin is wise enough, for example, to know that beauty intersects with power: Beauty can increase the power of a woman who is already privileged, like Cersei, but beauty is a terrible liability to women who have no power, like Sansa. Sansa, and Dany, are constantly being creeped on by men whom they have little choice but to tolerate. The ordinary-looking Arya, by contrast, can disguise herself as anything from a boy to a crippled beggar maid.

Our looks can advantage or disadvantage us in many ways:

Do you look like what you are?
Do you look like the other members of your family?
Do you look like many other people, or are you visually distinct?

The answers to these questions have life-changing power in the world of GoT, and in our world as well.

This is what I mean about looking like who you are:

Two pictures of me, surrounded by many, many awesome role models for me. I wrote about this on Already Pretty:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about appearance privilege. As a moderately attractive, medium-sized, slender brown-haired white ladyperson, I have never been profiled maliciously. I have very rarely even been profiled inaccurately. My physical type is our culture’s default setting for the Smart Nice Girl. From Fern Arable to Laura Ingalls to Mary Richards to Veronica Sawyer to Coco Chanel to Liz Lemon, I have never lacked for positive images of women who looked like me. My appearance has made it easier, not harder, to be taken seriously as an intellectual, as a professional, as a member of my chosen religious community. Women who look like me are the girl next door, the sensible wife, the breaker of glass ceilings, the comedienne, the thinking man’s sex symbol. There is little-to-nothing about my appearance that anyone would take as physically or psychologically threatening.

I could be far more beautiful than I am, but I don’t think it would make life any easier. My husband is quite a nice-looking man, but no Chris Pratt, and for a science comedian? That’s fine. You don’t want Chris Pratt telling youwhat happened when they did an MRI on a dead salmon. You want him deeply misunderstanding the nature of the Grand Canyon.

(I, on the other hand, pretty much am April Ludgate, and she’s right. You just can’t be annoyed at the Grand Canyon, no matter how much you try. And notice that she is also a slender, pretty-not-gorgeous white-skinned brown-haired ladyperson like myself.)

Open Door Theater (Guest Post)

November 19th, 2014

Reader Alison Waters-Short wrote to me after my post on the autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” to tell me about an accessibility-focused theater group that she’s involved with. I asked if she’d be willing to write a guest post on the topic, and she agreed. Here it is. Check out Open Door Theater, everyone, and thank you, Alison!

Bringing Theater to Everyone – Locally

Autism-Friendly Performance. Sensory-Friendly Film. Making entertainment accessible to audiences is the new thing, but how does that translate locally? And what about participating in the entertainment, not just watching it?

Major kudos go out to the recent autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in Boston that Robin wrote about recently. And to others such as Wheelock Family Theatre as well. Today, though, I want to tell you about another theater group you may have never heard of, right in Boston’s backyard.

Open Door Theater of Acton was founded in 1980 by two women who met at the bus stop, waiting for their kids. Between them, they wanted create a community theater organization with “open doors” for anyone, especially those who might not normally get the chance to participate in theater.

The early shows were a bit rag-tag, with cardboard sets painted by a local social group for people with disabilities and volunteers from a local nursing home. The sets could (and did) travel – but then again, they had to, as there was no storage for the group in the performance space! Now Open Door mounts one big musical per year, staged at the Acton-Boxborough junior high. Cast members often number over 100, bringing together families and people of all abilities on stage with boisterous, talented performances.

Throughout its evolution, Open Door has found ways to involve people on stage and off stage with all ranges of physical and cognitive challenges (e.g. actors and stage hands with autism-spectrum, spinal bifida, neurotypical, blindness, brittle bone disease, Down’s syndrome). Our most veteran player is a remarkably differently-abled woman who started on stage, has become an indispensible “Girl Friday” backstage, and now also serves on our board of directors.

These were the people that our founders wanted to “open doors” for. We were – and are! – proud to focus on people’s abilities, not disabilities. We welcome them into our theater family and give them support as a community to put their best foot forward. And like every family, ours has special traditions. Like doing the hokey-pokey together before every performance. When I joined Open Door in 2004, I didn’t know what to make of that. But now – watching the cast play together, across all boundaries that might otherwise separate them outside of the theater, is what I look forward to every year.

We’ve been dedicated to this inclusive mission since our founding. Then, in 2006, our music director asked for an ASL-interpreted performance so that his Deaf brother and sister-in-law could enjoy it. His question triggered the realization that while we had spent a lot of time reaching out to include people in our cast and crew, we hadn’t done anything for our audiences. We found ASL interpreters to partner with, and have had an ASL-interpreted performance every year since.

In 2013 our director suggested that adding an autism-friendly performance, as they had done on Broadway, would be a great fit with our mission. So we found a group to help us learn how to put one on, succeeded beyond our expectations, and then last year we did the same for an audio-described performance for the visually impaired. This year we are continuing to expand our ASL/audio inclusion by partnering with Children’s Hospital Audiology Outreach on an exciting new project to make participating in our show more accessible to students with hearing impairments, which in turn will likely bring more interest in our ASL-interpreted performance.

With some extra effort and thought, one step at a time, we have now evolved the Open Door mission to extend accessibility to our audiences as well as our participants.

It’s amazingly easy and hard at the same time to bring people together like this. Sometimes it seems to just happen organically, seeing the range of people who might otherwise not wave hello on a street come together to create a performance. Of course, it’s also a lot of hard work and planning. Providing buddies. Organizing scenes to consider everyone’s abilities. We do it because we believe that theater is for everyone, and the theater family can include us all.

And, speaking as someone who was in the cast of our very first autism-friendly performance, I tell you it was absolutely magical. Was it different? You bet. In a fabulous way. We could tell what we were doing was appreciated and enjoyed, and at the same time, it provided the cast and crew with a personal, meaningful connection to autism awareness that many of us had not previously had.

All that makes us sound like the only thing Open Door does is focus on special needs, and to be honest, as much as that is true, at the same time, it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Open Door is about creating fantastic family-oriented theater productions that happen to be accessible to many cast members, crew members, and audiences. We create beautiful theater that seamlessly blends all this together.

When I look at all the families acting and playing together, when I see all these people backstage enjoying each other and making new friends…that’s why we do this. It’s not really magic. Like the best of entertainment, we work hard to make it look that way, and then we get to participate in the result as well. But it’s completely possible for other groups to do this, too – and I hope there are other local groups who do, or will. After all, everyone has something to contribute, and everyone needs a place to feel special and a part of a family. That’s what Open Door is really all about.

Well, unless the hokey pokey is really what it’s all about. And if so, we’re still set.

Open Door Theater’s next show is “Shrek The Musical.” Auditions are December 1-4, 2014 and performances are March 20-29, 2015. Please consider checking us out.