Bringing the Middletown study to the stage at Ball State

The Middletown studies are classics within the field of sociology. Students at Ball State, located in “Middletown” itself, are adapting the project for the stage:

Almost a century later, 40 theatre and sociology students join in an immersive project to take the social experiment and put it in motion in live theater.

“The thing about the Middletown studies and what Robert and Helen Lynd were trying to accomplish was ground-breaking,” Jennifer Blackmer, associate professor of the Department of Theatre, said. “They came to Muncie to study Middle America like they would a tribe in New Guinea.”…

Beginning in spring 2011, the students conducted around 60 interviews with Muncie community members and studied various records of the Middletown studies, including the products of the Lynds studies: “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture,” published in 1929, and “Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts,” written as the couple revisited Muncie in the midst of the Great Depression. Students admit they were skeptical at the project’s start…

The couple serves as two personalities in the play among a cast of four main characters; the Lynds who are conducting their study in the 1920s, and two fictional Ball State sociology students trying to copy the Middletown study process. There are sixteen voices in the play of both students and community theater actors.

I would be interested in seeing this. It could bring life to some classic studies that most (all?) college students have never heard of but in their time revealed a lot about “normal” America. Plus, it allows students to connect with their community, linking art with real life. Just as some sociologists have started pursuing video projects and blogs, could theater (and art more broadly) become a way that sociologists share their findings?

Though the study isn’t referenced much in sociology these days, I am including it in current lectures in my American Suburbanization class. When talking about the rise of the automobile, the Middletown studies reveal some interesting details: people basically changed their lives so that they could drive around. The American love affair with the car started early and changed cultural patterns and values as well in addition to the obvious changes in development patterns.

Quick Review: Nickel and Dimed (theater version)

I recently saw Nickel and Dimed in a local theater production. The text is a staple of Introduction to Sociology classes but I was not aware until recently that the 2001 book had been adapted for the stage. While the New York Times reviewed the play in its 2006 New York City debut, I have a few thoughts about the production I saw:

1. Like the book, the play follows Barbara to her three new professions that pay minimum wage (or a little higher): working as a waitress at Kenny’s, working as a housecleaner for a maids company, and working on the sales floor at Mall-Mart. From what I remember of the book, the basic story is the same: Barbara decides to do this in order to understand the experiences of the American working poor, finds that the work is physically taxing and also takes time to master, and concludes that such a life is quite difficult and unfair.

2. Besides Barbara, the key characters are some of her co-workers. These people are often caught in dead-end jobs that offer little money and few or no benefits. With nowhere else to go, some of the coworkers doggedly follow the rules in order to maintain their jobs, others rebel a bit, while others show Barbara compassion that she was not expecting to need. In the final moments of the play, we hear about some of these workers have fared in the long run even as Barbara has returned to her cushy life.

2a. One of the more interesting scenes from these co-workers comes toward the end of the play when her Mal-Mart manager speaks directly to the audience for a few moments. As a manager, he says “the numbers don’t lie” and suggests that there is little that can be done to improve work for he or his employees as the prices dictate the wages and benefits. Of course, he is suggesting that the problem extends higher up in the company.

3. One of the fun parts of the evening was thinking about how the audience was reacting to these scenes. Barbara plays up some of the class conflict ideas and says some uncomfortable things, particularly to a fairly wealthy, suburban crowd.

4. This particular production included four musical numbers which I don’t believe are part of the typical stage production. While I am not a fan of musicals, I thought these numbers added something to the show. I always find it interesting to hear cheerful-sounding numbers about less-than-cheerful themes such as unjust working conditions.

5. Several of my students saw the show and their comments to me suggested that the play hit an emotional nerve in a way that a lecture on social class in America in my Intro to Sociology course has a hard time doing. In additional conversations, we found that my students and I have worked in some similar jobs but the difference was that we knew that we had better educational and career options down the road.

Overall, I enjoyed thinking about these topics in a new way though the theater. Now that Ehrenreich’s book is 10 years old, is there another book that was recently published or that is in the works that can address some of the same issues while attaining the popularity of Nickel and Dimed? That might be a tall task but such works help keep sociological discussions alive in the public sphere.

(I also found that Ehrenreich’s personal page for the book includes positive reviews from a number of sociologists.)

Licensing theater

Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society pointed me to a comprehensive study by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) (Wikipedia backgrounder) on the effects of media piracy in emerging markets:

Based on three years of work by some thirty-five researchers, Media Piracy in Emerging Economies tells two overarching stories: one tracing the explosive growth of piracy as digital technologies became cheap and ubiquitous around the world, and another following the growth of industry lobbies that have reshaped laws and law enforcement around copyright protection. The report argues that these efforts have largely failed, and that the problem of piracy is better conceived as a failure of affordable access to media in legal markets.

“The choice,” said Joe Karaganis, director of the project, “isn’t between high piracy and low piracy in most media markets. The choice, rather, is between high-piracy, high-price markets and high-piracy, low price markets. Our work shows that media businesses can survive in both environments, and that developing countries have a strong interest in promoting the latter. This problem has little to do with enforcement and a lot to do with fostering competition.”

I’m looking forward to perusing the report, but there’s a threshold issue that I want to address:  SSRC has released the report itself subject to a “Consumer’s Dilemma” license:

[T]he CD license creates different paths to acquiring the report: first, we have an IP address geolocator that sends visitors from high income countries toward an $8 paywall when they download the report;  all other resolvable IP addresses get free access.  Second, and separately available, a ‘commercial reader’ license that costs $2000.

Why did SSRC set things up this way?  Licensing theater:

Maybe some clarification is in order here. If you are residing in one of the listed high-income countries, want to read the report, but think that $8 is an unreasonable price, you can acquire it for free through other means.  In fact, we have made it exceedingly easy to do so. If you fall under the terms of the commercial reader license but think that $2000 is unreasonable, you have the same options (plus the $8 option).  In both cases, the reader is faced with a dilemma: pay the legal price (roughly mapping ability to pay to a determination about whether the price is fair), acquire it through pirate channels, or don’t bother with it.  In most of the countries we’ve studied in this report, the results of this calculation with respect to DVDs, music, and software are strikingly consistent.  Media goods are highly desired, exorbitantly priced with respect to local incomes, and freely available through pirate channels.   High rates of piracy and tiny legal markets are the result. We’ve written 400+ pages about this dysfunctional form of globalization and its causes.

The resulting consumer dilemma is a ubiquitous experience in medium and low-income countries but one that confronts the American or European reader (or the media company employee conjured up by the commercial reader license) much less frequently and with much less intensity.  The global market is made for those consumers.  It is priced and distributed for them.  They are rarely faced with what they experience as ridiculous pricing for a DVD or book–or seriously disadvantaged by differential pricing.  The Consumer’s Dilemma license is a way of reversing that equation and, in the most minor ways,  requiring an explicit engagement with it.  Among the surreal aspects, that simple choice can subject you to crushing civil and criminal penalties, but you can rest easy knowing that only very rare, arbitrary examples will be made (and none in our case).  Now that’s theater.  Our license has a theatrical side, to be sure, but it also stays true to the experiences  documented in the report.

Well done, SSRC.  Now I’m really curious to read the report…

Update: TechDirt has posted an initial analysis of the report here.

Play considers what it was like to grow up in Naperville

Since the post-World War II suburban boom, a number of writers, filmmakers, musicians, and others have considered suburban life. Mat Smart, a playwright who grew up in Naperville, has a new Steppenwolf play about growing up in that community:

Though Smart acknowledges that part of the play’s genesis stems from a trip he took to Cameroon five years ago, the issues explored come from the same place where he grew up. Smart said the brothers, whom he described as “very much suburban Chicago dudes,” have differing views of growing up in Naperville.

Samuel K., the adopted brother, enjoyed living there, while Samuel J. complains about it and says the people living there are shallow.

“That was the same discourse among some of my friends when we were growing up,” Smart said. “Some people love it and some people hate it. But you’ll probably find that anywhere in the world.”

This sounds like it could be a different view than many works that simply suggest living in the suburbs is one of life’s worst fates.

The play also contains some dialogue comparing Naperville to another Chicago suburb:

The play also includes a humorous exchange between the brothers poking fun at the underlying attitudes some Naperville residents hold toward neighboring Aurora.

Samuel K. tells his brother, “Stop dumping on Naperville. We’re lucky to be from there. We could be from a lot worse places.”

“What, like Aurora?” Samuel J. says.

“No, like Rwanda.”

This exchange hints at how suburbanites view the character of other suburbs. For some Naperville residents, Aurora would be considered beneath their community with comparisons made between schools, crime rates, housing prices, downtowns, and more. Historically, Naperville thought Hinsdale was above it as it had a wealthier population. These sorts of comparisons between suburbs are not always explicitly stated but I suspect are commonly held among suburbanites.

The ubiquity of the standing ovation

My wife and I recently had the chance to see Les Misérables in Chicago. At the end of the show, the crowd gave a standing ovation. It seems that this is no longer unusual: whether it is a high school play, an orchestra concert, or a big-time musical, the crowd gives a standing ovation. Is this a new social norm?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, here is the definition of a standing ovation: “a rousing ovation conferred by an audience standing as a mark of enthusiastic approval, esp. after a speech.” But I have always thought that a standing ovation is not just given when the crowd enthusiastically approves; rather, it is reserved for special occasions, when the performance or speaker has done a tremendous job. This more restrictive definition is supported by Wikipedia: “A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding. This is done on special occasions by an audience to show their approval and is done after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim…Standing ovations are considered to be a special honor.” If this is the social norm, how can every performance be worthy of a standing ovation?

So why might crowds be more willing to give more frequent standing ovations? A few thoughts:

1. It has lost its status as something done for a special or noteworthy performance. It is now perfunctory. Crowds think they are supposed to give a standing ovation no matter what.

2. A more nuanced explanation: in the case of something like Les Misérables, the average attendee does not know whether the actors have given a good performance or not. This is a world-renowned musical, the attendees have paid a lot of money to attend, and so it must have been good and deserving of a standing ovation. The key here is that the average person can’t easily distinguish the quality of many performances and is left to judge the performance by other factors, such as its status. Since the theater or going to the orchestra is a rare event for many and it is accompanied by ideas about high culture and fancier dress, the standing ovation may just seem like the right thing to do.

(This is supported by an incident after the musical: a teenage couple was walking out and one said, “Epinone was just terrible.” The other said, “Yeah, her singing was bad.” A few of us who overheard this just smiled and looked at each other. How were we to know whether this was true or not? Presumably, one would have had to see this musical multiple times or listened to the music many times before a judgment could be made.)

If the standing ovation is now normal, what can a crowd do to show extreme enthusiasm or to mark an excellent performance? A few options: a prolonged applause or loud whistling or yelling along with the clapping.

All the world’s a fair use

If you’re out in San Diego sometime during the next month, you might want to check out a staging of a 2009 play written about the copyright concept of fair use:

The play “Fair Use” borrows from the romantic epic “Cyrano de Bergerac.” [Wikipedia backgrounder] It also borrows from a legal doctrine about borrowing….It becomes a plot point in “Fair Use” when an author is sued for supposedly appropriating the work of another writer without permission. The “Cyrano” angle comes in when a love triangle sprouts at the Chicago law firm representing the writer.

As reviewer James Herbert dryly notes,

It would be ironic (and yet pretty good theater, in a way) if a stage show that meditates on the violation of copyright got hauled into court for that very offense. But not to worry: “Cyrano” is long since in the public domain.

That is almost too bad.  For my money, it’s nice when art imitates life.  For your money, the show is $31-33.  However, if you go see it on March 7, it’s pay-what-you-can.