Last time (008) we talked about celebrity culture as a problem.
Celebrity culture, we argued, colonizes our kids.
This time (009) we’ll talk about celebrity culture as a solution.
Celebrity culture invites imitation.
It inspires emulation.
And this becomes a wish to perform.
Especially if you are 6 to 26 years old.
To watch Charlie D’Amelio (pictured) dance on TikTok is to think to yourself,
“hey, I could do that!”
The next thing you know, you have your phone on a stand, and you’re asking your mom to buy you a ring light.
Performance is everywhere.
I was doing an ethnographic interview in Toronto with a 20-something guy and everything he said came out as if scripted and directed.
It was as if he believed I couldn’t possibly understand him unless he acted out everything he wanted to say.
It was a polished performance…tucked into the most ordinary moment of social life.
Performance is endemic.
Recall our coverage (003: fluidity) of the Millennial doing a performance to suit her Boomer boss at a Christmas party. She was performing as a boomer.
Working late at night, in isolation, this security guard decided to stage a performance. For her quarter-million TikTok fans.
Social media platforms flourish in part because they work so well as stages.
It’s because TikTok works so well as a stage that two-thirds of U.S. teenagers have an account there.
We’ve been saying “all the world’s a stage” for 423 years.
Now it is, both on line and off.
This brings us to the Denzel Washington School for Drama.
Here’s how I figure it, we should be able to use celebrity culture to fix some of the problems that beset us.
Take for instance Failure to Launch youth (001).
These kids are everywhere.
I was doing ethnographic interviews in a strip mall in Los Angeles. A couple of guys fell into the conversation but a third guy remained standing about 20 feet away.
He was listening. He was watching. But he wouldn’t approach.
This is classic FTL behavior, shy, uncertain, tentative.
One of the guys in our circle waved him over.
“Hey, come on, join us.”
And to my surprise he did.
He walked over and just kind of stood there.
He still wasn’t talking but his affect had changed completely.
He was beaming!
His facial expression said, “What an honor! I’m one of the guys.”
FTL rescue accomplished!
We had moved this guy out of his imprisonment into the world. (Baby steps, sure, but important because FTL begins with a crippling stasis. Any steps are big steps.)
We had helped him solve a social problem he could not solve for himself.
Which brings us back to the Denzel Washington School for Drama (hereafter DWSD).
Why not educate our FTL kid (hereafter FTL-K) in the arts of social life?
I think there’s a good chance he might like the idea of attending the DWSD.
Who doesn’t want to get a little closer to a Hollywood star? Especially when that star is Denzel Washington.
Our pitch would be simple (if a little devious). We want to leverage our FTL-K’s knowledge of and passion for celebrity as a way to draw him into DWSD. The offer: come train as an actor. The implicit offer: become an actor and, hey, who knows, someday perhaps a star.
Here’s how we could do it:
Our FTL-K comes to acting classes at DWSD for contact with celebrity culture, and he stays for the social skills. If all he takes away from classes are the social skills (and not a life as an actor or celebrity), he’s well served and better for it.
At the heart of this is the truth of acting: to play someone is become them, to try on new kinds of selfhood, to enter someone else’s world.
I believe, without proof, that this is true:
to teach our FTL-K how to act on stage is to (begin to) teach him how to act in life.
It’s up to him to see how he can apply these new skills in life. He can now “fake it til he makes it.”
Hey, it could work…especially because, all together now, all the world’s a stage.
Acting could give this kid a chance to try on selfhood with training wheels.
This will work for him partly because we have managed out the risk. Something goes wrong on stage, we yank him out. Something goes wrong in life, and we give him a couple of devices for yanking himself out. (For instance, “Oh, God, I have to take this call. It’s probably my boss.”)
In the meantime, the actor is on a path to self discovery. Every new role comes with a small bundle of questions:
“How does this role feel to you? How does it work for you? Ok, now take this selfhood for a spin. See how you like it. “
I can hear someone complain:
“Yes, but life is not scripted.”
To which I say, “Exactly, that’s what improv is for.”
Once our FTL-K is up and running as an “actor," we can introduce him to something really terrifying. Going out on a stage without a script or much in the way of a plan.
Mind you, for many FTL kids, improv is what ALL social life feels like. They don’t have a clue what to do or say. So mounting the improv stage at DWSD might actually feel pretty familiar. Not, in any case, worse than their usual experience.
We are building three things
a mobile selfhood that allows someone to enter social life
a set of routines to use in that social life
improv skills to manage the spontaneity of social life
At the very least, we have got our FTL-K out of his isolation. The rest is up to him. We have taught a man to fish…
The Denzel Washington School for Drama has many applications. It can help anyone work on the complexities of contemporary life.
It’s a mark of our culture, one of its best qualities and its worst, that we are constantly changing the way we define identity and the rules of social life. You don’t have to be a FTL-K to find things a little mysterious. The #metoo movement taught us how much managers have to learn about respect in the work place.
Dramatic roles can teach us something here. Especially when we are asked to play the part of a junior female at work who is being preyed upon by a senior colleague. Or how about learning the social logic of a new startup? This would allow us to experience what it is to inspire, engage, manage the team. The idea: play a great leader to become a great leader.
Every organization struggles to help its occupants grasp how they are seen by people outside the organization, by consumers, users, clients, etc. As actors we can see ourselves as others see us.
Every organization struggles to learn how to make itself more diverse and to take advantage of the breadth of culture this makes available to them. Dramatic training can help! It helps us see what it’s like when “outsiders” become insiders.
These days we talk a good game about empathy. But too often it is talk and precious little action. Feeling someone’s pain is a good thing. But acting out that pain, in a sustained dramatic and emotional moment, is much, much more illuminating.
Our world is now fraught with instability and confusion. Some of this comes from our culture, as I suggest in the opening post.
But what culture takes away from us in the form of stability, it replaces with instruments of innovation. In short, we can use culture to fix culture.
For instance, a Drama School, with or without Mr. Washington’s distinguished participation, could use celebrity to repair culture.
001 Culture Problem: the “Failure to Launch” people
002 Culture Problem: vibe shifts in decline
003 Culture Solution: fluidity as an adaptation
004 Culture Problem: decline of the water cooler
005 Culture Solution: big pictures
006 Culture Problem: bad food
007: Culture Solution: good food
008: Culture Problem: celebrities
009: Culture Solution: the Denzel Washington School for Drama
Here’s how the argument here is shaping up.
We have covered five culture problems:
001 Culture Problem: the “Failure to Launch” people, a generation is stalled waiting for adulthood
002 Culture Problem: vibe shifts in decline: evidence that culture is not cohering
004 Culture Problem: decline of the water cooler: our ability to calibrate is failing
006 Culture Problem: bad food: something as fundamental as food was corrupted
008: Culture Problem: celebrities are sometimes a bad influence, colonizing our kids
We have suggested four culture solutions:
003 Culture Solution: fluidity can serve us as an adaptation
005 Culture Solution: big pictures are available and improving
007: Culture Solution: good food and a massive revolution, proof of our power to repair
009: Culture Solution: The Denzel Washington School for Drama can help us use culture to fix culture
And if you liked this post, please “like” it and retweet it.
I have not asked Mr. Washington for permission to use his name. My devout apologies to anyone who takes exception to my use of his name, especially if that’s you, Mr. Washington! I am happy to recant, rename, rewrite and republish.
It’s a fair question whether Mr. Washington (or any celebrity) would wish to participate in a School for Drama. His career tells us that he is a master of the power of acting as a transformative device. We know from his public life that he cares about doing good. And it’s also worth pointing out that this assignment doesn’t have to be onerous. For starters, Mr. Washington need only bless the school with his name and share a little of his celebrity. (If he wants to do more, bless him.) The gravitational field generated by celebrity is so powerful that mere proximity is enough to give students a sense that they have “made contact,” that they are a part of the “magic circle.” We can be certain that every student at the Denzel Washington School for Drama will never tire of telling people they attend the Denzel Washington School for Drama. Lend us a little of your celebrity, Mr. Washington, that we might use it to teach kids the skills and opportunities of social life.
Anyone thinking of creating a Drama school like this should text or email me at email@example.com.
What a lovely original concept -with an origin of kindness — the balm of inclusion
Grant, this is amazing. You are an enlightened human shining the light on the future of society. I bow to you, Guru ji 🙏