Bleakness and Light
by Jay Weitz
In his 1916 poem “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” William Butler Yeats said:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right
We again find ourselves “in times like these” and our local poets of the stage, Available Light Theatre, “dedicated to building a more conscious and compassionate world by creating joyful and profound theatre and serving our community,” have been wondering what can be done.
You might call Matt Slaybaugh, AVLT convener and current executive director, the Guiding Light. A bit over a year ago, while planning the 2018/2019 season, he came up with an idea for what he calls “a spectacular, extravagant new play with songs called Demagogues. I was really excited about it, but then I worked on it for a few months, and it turns out that reading about the worst people in history can be really depressing.”
“At the same time,” Slaybaugh continues, “Available Light was doing a lot of thinking about our values and what we contribute to the world, our vocation. I started worrying that Demagogues was just going to be an evening full of snark and bitterness. The world felt pretty bleak in the summer of 2018, and not just because of the guy in the White House. I talked to so many people who just felt so overwhelmed by the negativity in the world. I was really wondering what value we could contribute to our community.”
Enter David Byrne. Twice. During the summer of 2018, Slaybaugh and fellow AVLT founding member Acacia Duncan saw Byrne’s American Utopia tour two times. “In addition to being one of the greatest art experiences I’ve ever had, it was also one of the most joyful,” Slaybaugh says. “David Byrne is a very outspoken and astute artist who’s never been afraid of mixing social commentary with pop music. So I was very moved by the fact that in the summer of 2018, when you might expect him to talk about the president or to stir things up, Mr. Byrne instead chose to simply make something amazing and put as much joy into the world as he could. And being on the receiving end of that work, I was very grateful.”
American Utopia — album and tour — is actually part of an ongoing Byrne multimedia project entitled “Reasons to be Cheerful” (https://www.reasonstobecheerful.world/), which serves as an antidote to “times like these.” American Utopia also began to redirect Slaybaugh’s thinking about the show intended to close the 2018/2019 AVLT season.
Around the same time in 2018, Michelle Schroeder Lowrey, a third of the five AVLT founders, earned her American Psychological Association-approved Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) from the New York-based Flourishing Center (https://theflourishingcenter.com). Lowrey then spent time in Australia studying its applications in education. “For months she had been saying, Matt, we should talk about this, I really think you’d be interested,” recounts Slaybaugh. “So, last fall we finally got together to talk about it. And she was right, it was like my brain was full of tiny intellectual and emotional explosions. In the first fifteen minutes of the conversation, she had already changed my life.”
Some of the concepts behind Positive Psychology and human flourishing were already in Slaybaugh’s toolkit, but parts of it were revelatory. “ All of it was fascinating. It’s like a unified theory of happiness and well-being,” he said. “I wanted to know more and to learn more and my way of doing that is often to make a show. So Michelle and I immediately talked about a production that would introduce people to these ideas.”
Slaybaugh conferred with the AVLT company and board “about making a show that would be inspired by the findings of Positive Psychology, and would be very intentionally designed to share joy and delight, to ‘add to the plus side of the equation,’ as we like to say. We used the phrase ‘finding joy despite the shit’ — whatever that shit is, personal, cultural, political, spiritual, and so on.” With guidance from Lowrey, Slaybaugh got to work.
When AVLT board member Rick Livingston heard Slaybaugh’s reference to Byrne, he thought of the classic 1980 Talking Heads album, Remain in Light, calling it “an apt slogan for dark times.” “Somehow I had never really thought about the meaning of that title,” Slaybaugh admits. “Rick was right, that’s exactly what the show is about. It’s about how to find joy even when your circumstances are difficult, even when you’re living through dark times.”
If there’s anything that AVLT knows about, it’s “light.” Right there glowing at the center of its name. It was Yeats who wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It was Byrne who concluded Remain in Light with “The Overload,” in which he sang “The center is missing.” Slaybaugh and AVLT intend to restore that center with whatever light is available.
Remain In Light
Written and Directed by Matt Slaybaugh
Featuring: Whitney Thomas Eads, Elena M. Perantoni, and Dakota Thorn
May 9–25, 2019
Riffe Center Studio 2 Theatre
77 South High St., 4th Floor
Columbus, Ohio 43215
Tickets and More Info: http://avltheatre.com/