Friday, May 1, 2009

Re-consolidated Theatre

When I was 21 years old, and had just come to New York for a summer of acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I became friends with a young screenwriter, who was already a success by the age of 25. I respected him a great deal, and asked him one day why he wrote for the screen and not for theatre. His answer was that “film lasts longer”. This is certainly true where an individual production comes and goes, while a film is locked, and we can watch it fresh anytime. There was another dimension to his comment which he explained to me later. He felt that while the average movie is terrible, a really great one can change your life, and you remember it forever. It lasts in us, in ways that a good play does not. There have been times when I believed this, and times when I didn’t, but what I liked most about the idea was that it gave me a new way to evaluate good art. How long I kept thinking, and talking about a piece was perhaps a measure of its importance to me. I tried to see if the recollection of a piece succeeds or fails to reanimate emotions in me. I have plays, movies, operas, ballets, jazz concerts, symphonies and paintings that all have done this, so choosing the superior art form is not a valid way to for me to evaluate its worth. Still, I keep this in mind.

This week I went to see the Trisha Brown Dance Company at BAM and one of the “The Norman Conquests” on Broadway. I left the theatre loving both of these, but now two days later I realize that it is the ballet that has the more lasting powerful effect on me. So, I would judge it to be more important. I think that there is something about this power of truly profound art, rather than simpler, but still very good art, which relates to some interesting research in neuro-science regarding a neuro-function called re-consolidation. Though I have no expertise in this, I understand the main point to be, that in creating long term memories, the brain creates a hierarchy of importance, so that the crucial memories remain. This is achieved through the strong neuron to neuron connections called synapses. Long term memories were traditionally thought to be “hard wired”, not being able to be broken, therefore not being able to be forgotten. This makes sense, as we all know older people who have lost short term memory, which can be associated with the lack of ability to create new synapses, while memories from the distant past seem perfectly clear. This is still thought to be true to an extent, however newer research into re-consolidation shows that it is not actually the original memory (or synapse) that we are accessing. Instead, as we recall a consolidated event, (one that is “hard wired”) the connection is broken and replaced by a new connection. It is re-consolidated. This suggests that we are not remembering the event, but instead remembering the last time we remembered the event. So the more we think about something, the more we are potentially moving away from the original event, but the more that memory means to us, as artifacts of the replaced connections still exist. This is being studied now at McGill, and a drug actually in trials, which can neutralize the impact of a memory, by breaking the consolidated connection. This is being proposed, and been shown to work for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After taking the drug they remember the traumatic event, but without the terrible emotional effects of the trauma.

I don’t exactly know why I thought of this research in relation to my earlier comments about the power of art, but for me the very, very mild, but extremely vivid emotional effect that art can have, and can continue to have are memories which are not frozen in time, but recreated, and re-consolidated every time I remember the event. The more times I think about Trisha Brown these next few weeks, the more likely I am to remember it when I am old.

So what about “The Norman Conquests”? It was a terrific play, which was a creative new farce. The reason I went was that friends invited my wife and I after reading the reviews, which were the hands down best reviews of anything currently playing in New York. I understand why, as there is nothing bad to say about it. The writing and directing were perfect. The acting was amazing. Still, I already don’t think about it much. The chances that I will remember this play when I am old are unlikely. This made me think about reviews in general, and I had this desire for critics to write a second review of a play 1 year after seeing it. Of course details would be wrong, but the response, I would guess, would also be very different. What sticks with the critic, and the audience, the night they see theatre is very different from the re-consolidation of it later.

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