TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Soars to New Heights in Front of 18,000 Students at Madison Square Garden
Under typical circumstances, it would be a difficult task to judge just how much a piece of theater is affecting an audience. The average age of a theatergoer hovers in the range of 40 to 45 years old, and by then social mores have taken over and hammered in the rules of "proper" theater etiquette. You may hear measured laughs and gasps or catch a few tears slipping out, but for the most part, instinctual, visceral and verbal reactions are reeled in. But, when you take a Broadway play and put it in front of 18,000 students in one of the world's most famous arenas, the energy rises to match its surroundings. High points are celebrated with deafening cheers, the dislike of characters is vocalized, and the silences are heightened. When Aaron Sorkin's To Kill A Mockingbird became the first ever Broadway play to perform at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, the sheer magnitude of the surroundings and the unbridled energy that comes from 18,000 kids sharing a space made it impossible to forget for even a second that history was unfolding in front of your eyes.
Aaron Sorkin's To Kill A Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee's novel, holds the title of the most successful American play in Broadway history. The enduring story of Atticus, Tom and Scout, and the racial injustice pervading their small Alabama town in 1934, has permeated American culture in a way that has made it almost peerless in its impact and consistent relevance. Bringing To Kill A Mockingbird (produced on Broadway by Scott Rudin and Barry Diller) to Madison Square Garden made a landmark piece of theater accessible in a way that had never been done before. The single-performance event was entirely free to students of New York City Department of Education public middle and high schools from all five boroughs. It marked the largest attendance at a single performance of a play ever in world theater.
The long stage was set up in-the-round, the courtroom positioned at one end and the Finch front porch at the other, with various other sets and set pieces placed throughout the length of the stage. The event (which also featured performances by New York City school choirs prior to the start of the play and during intermission) was introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio; First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray; and Oscar-winner Spike Lee. Each spoke to the mass of students about the current challenges facing our country and how art can inspire young people to reflect and act in order to make change. Mayor de Blasio's words, "Do not doubt the power of high school students, middle school students, all students who are right now in this city, in this country, around this world, changing the way people think, changing what's possible" carried a special weight in this venue.
The excitement of the students was palpable and ear-splitting, a sample of further verbal reactions to come. To ensure that the actors would be able to hear one another on stage amongst the sound of the crowd, they were each given in-ear monitors to wear and practiced with them during the last week of rehearsals - The cast rehearsed for this event every Tuesday and Thursday beginning in early January.
For as satisfying as it may initially seem to know immediately whether the action unfolding onstage is liked or disliked by the audience, to instantly know if they are relating to the material, there was the question of whether or not the noise would be distracting. Not only was it not distracting, but for the actors, hearing those reactions from 18,000 students charged their performances on stage. Kyle Scatliffe, who plays Tom Robinson in the show had to this say, "... The 18,000 students fueled that performance. When you hear reactions in the Shubert [Theatre], it's really nice to hear them in there as well... but when you know you have reactionary teenagers all at the same time having that reaction, you feel vindicated almost, that what you are doing on stage is correct... You hear the play differently when all those students are reacting. You hear it differently, and it causes your reaction to increase tenfold when you hear that many people react. That's basic humanity right there. That many people reacting, you react."
And for all the excitement being shouted at the stage by the crowd of students, it all came at proper moments in the play - moments that you wish you could verbally react to in a traditional Broadway theater. There was never an uncalled-for disruption, there was never noise just for the sake of noise. These students were paying attention. They were listening. And despite all of the trash-talk that gets sent Gen Z's way about not being able to survive without their face in a phone, it would have been a downright impossible task to spot the glow of even one cell phone during the entire three hours of the performance.
Scatliffe commented, "I had one moment on the stand... I started to realize how silent it was. It's such a crazy moment when you're sitting there, and you're starting to realize how silent it is with 18,000 people all in one spot. How well they were listening. It overwhelmed me for a second. Like, wow, there are 18,000 of you and none of you are making a sound right now while I'm speaking."
The shared experience of witnessing live theater is electric. Magnifying that experience to the tune of 18,000 young people and providing it for free in order to broaden the reach of an art form was moving and seemed to affect everybody in the venue from the audience to the actors.
"When you do matinees, you may have 40 students come to watch the show, but to have that outreach all at once in such a big way from all the boroughs of New York is truly something remarkable." Scatliffe shared. "They did such an amazing job of not only pulling in students, but pulling in a giant, diverse crowd of students as well. It was remarkable...You build a bridge when they come to watch the show, you build a bridge to see art, and it's now up to them to walk across that bridge and see what's on the other side of it, and I think that's what's really beautiful about it."
An incredible feat was achieved at Madison Square Garden. The event was visible, tangible proof of how much the story of To Kill A Mockingbird still resonates with young people. How much art, when easily accessible, resonates with young people. For some students, this may have been their first experience with live theater. If a piece of theater affects just one person, it can make a difference. Let's continue to make live theater as accessible as it was at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, and see what's possible when we do.
Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas