Cultural Lenses and the Expat Condition (Or, A Night at the Theatre)

expat issues, theatre
It is becoming exceedingly clear that this expat is plagued with a non-medical condition known as levidensi dermis (commonly referred to as “thin skin”). Symptoms include fluttering heart, pursed lips, furrowed eye muscles, premature face wrinkles, and uncontrollable thoughts of wishing that present company would just “shut the hell up, already.” This condition primarily effects Americans living abroad, and may flare up at unexpected times, particularly in public places.

There is no known cure, but sufferers are urged to alleviate symptoms by smiling broadly and practicing a sense of humor that is heavy on lightness and light on sarcasm.

I was expecting this entry to be a report on my long overdue attendance at Darlinghurst Theatre, the edgy little theatre up the street from our apartment. But, that entry is going to have to wait because it would not be fair for me to talk about their production of tHe DysFUnCKtionalz. I had to leave at intermission because my levidensi dermis flared up, and I found myself unable to laugh at any jokes or enjoy the production; which, I may add, was absolutely no fault of the theatre, the cast, or the production values.

In fact, I was particularly looking forward to seeing this show because we’d had the script at my old job, and some of my interns who’d read it simply adored it. Truthfully, had I read it back at home, I wonder if I would have liked it, too.

It’s a British play with the premise that an old English punk band gets back together when an American credit card company wants to pay them a lot of money to use their song in a commercial. The lead singer, in particular, has to reconcile his anti-establishment morals with the promise of all that money. The dialogue is pretty sharp, and the conflict is realistic. But, the problem that caused my condition to flare up was the incredible anti-American sentiment. Now, it’s one thing to say that America owns the world, has an over-consumption problem, and should not be in the Middle East. Fine. No worries. But, my shoulders began to rise with repeated, brash 9-11 jokes, which seemed even more hateful on this date, just a few days past the anniversary, when so many of my friends found themselves veiled in sadness for the remembrance of worst day of their lives. And then, in the final scene before intermission, the band has to perform the song with new, ridiculous corporate-approved lyrics. The lead singer appears draped in an American flag, which he proceeds to simulate a lewd act with, and then stuff into the front of his pants. It is unclear to me whether that was in the script or a directorial choice. In any case, that was all that my sensibilities could take.

Now, let me stop here and tell you – I’m not this girl … my tolerance for laughing at over-the-top art is typically great. I have left shows because I considered them artistically poor, but never before because I was offended. Yes, the character in the play is saying a lot of awful things, but it’s a play about punk rockers – what am I to expect? I listen to The Ramones. I know the anti-organization, anti-authority, anti-commercial score. This is what these characters would say and do.

After sleeping on it, I’ve decided that the problem is two-fold. Part of this is my problem, and one I have to work through if I want to participate in the arts here. Everyone else in the audience thought it was all very funny, which I think is what really got my heckles up. I felt like I was the joke, rather than being in on the joke. Maybe this is a lot of responsibility for me to take on (the whole of the American character, as it were), and I must learn to laugh at the absurdity.

But let’s now flip the table for the other side of this problem. What if a British person came to the U.S. to see a play where everyone was laughing about the British bringing the 7-7 bombings upon themselves, and a photo of the Queen was desecrated? Or, if an Australian visitor found herself at a play that suggested that the Aussies deserved to have their ANZAC soldiers lost at Gallipoli, and then someone spat on the Australian flag? When I turn it around like that, I suddenly don’t feel so sensitive or crazy.

This is a tough one for me. One of the jobs of good theatre is to push us outside of our comfort zone and provoke us into looking at the world in a new way. Consider me provoked. And, as I read over this, it would seem that maybe I’m just asking for permission to feel offended. Of course, I’m allowed to feel any way I feel; but is that feeling justified, or does logic dictate that I should learn to operate on a higher level of consciousness – one that takes these trivialities in stride, and laughs them off with the rest of my new countrymen?

Perhaps I should have stayed for the whole play to see how it concluded. But, in the moment, with my condition flaring up, it felt physically impossible for me to sit in that room any longer. I hit a wall, and my capacity for flexibility of mind and taking in any new information was reached. My heart hurt, and there was nothing more I could do, but wonder where the arts and I go from here, given my delicate state.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Lenses and the Expat Condition (Or, A Night at the Theatre)

  1. AmySteinmetz

    How much American TV do you see there? When in India I saw a lot of American TV — not good stuff, either. Stuff that certainly supported any perception that Americans were inherently spoiled, shallow, aloof, oblivious… I wanted to hide under things, I wanted to stand up and shout that this was not a good representation and that if I’d ever realized that this stuff was going to be broadcast around the world I would have protested it at home (though it was unoffensive, aside from being treacle).

    Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Anfd sometimes the art goes too far. (Prick us, do we not bleed?)

    I am, however, interested to read this sucker now.

  2. C. In Oz

    I was very tempted to leave, but what I didn’t mention was that I was on the FRONT ROW! It was atrocious placement.

    Amy – well, we don’t have a TV, but from what I’ve been told, there is a ton of American TV here. I do remember the kids in Scotland telling us that we sounded “just like the people on Friends” (*squeal!*). I have to tell you that I had an epiphany this morning – this is what the people at Jewtopia felt like, and no wonder they yelled. I wanted to yell at someone, too. (But, yes, I’m sort of curious about how it ended, too. You should ask Amanda if the script is still around).

  3. AmySteinmetz

    Meant to do that today, but got distracted trying to make English out of babble.

    What I saw in India that really made me wish myself dead? Was “Full House.” Just kill me.

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