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Essay

From the Artistic Director: The Light Years

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

“She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” 
Bob Dylan, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”

Steele: Do you see that bright star? That’s Arcturus. Precisely 40 light years away… Heralded as the “Star of Joy” by the prehistoric Polynesian navigators. Known as “Keeper of heaven” to the Arab, “Old Man” to the Eskimo and “The Dragon” to the Chinese, she casts her beams of orange out into that sea of darkness.
The Debate Society, The Light Years

In 1933, the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair concocted a somewhat whimsical and convoluted plan to open the festivities by focusing light emanating from the star Arcturus onto a photocell that would trigger the ignition of the fair’s electrical systems. They chose Arcturus because of its traditional importance to navigators and because its distance of roughly 40 light years from earth linked it to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Perhaps subliminally they hoped to reach out from the depths of the Great Depression towards the imagined prosperity of the Gay Nineties (a term invented in the 20s by artists unmindful of economic crises in the 90s). The play-making team, The Debate Society, fashion their latest play, The Light Years, out of the frame of these two World’s Fairs and its implicit dichotomy of promise versus penury. They embody the gay spirit of the first fair in the person of Adeline, who rides the stage on the newly-invented bicycle, chirping saucy expletives like “Brambles,” when her husband, Hillary, declines to go home to gambol as he works day and night (along with fellow technician, Hong Sling), to harness the thrilling, lethal power of electricity in the service of the almost comically grandiose (and historically accurate) spectacles planned by the mostly forgotten, larger-than-life theatrical impresario, Steele MacKaye. By 1933, those unsustainable dreams are mostly forgotten. Hillary retreats from view and Hong Sling steps forward to become the landlord to a jingle writer, Lou, his loyal wife, Ruth, and their young son, Charlie. Lou channels witty, if forced cheer into his terse, unbought tunes while his son, Charlie, longs for the Graf Zeppelin commemorative stamp, which at 50¢ is out of reach, and Ruth makes the daily rounds of the fair in search of a few quarters. 

Equal parts cheeky, nerdily hip, and spooky.

The Debate Society’s collaboratively devised plays frequently recreate vivid slices of Americana, but they generally evoke periods from more recent memory, fashioning a vibe that is in equal parts cheeky, nerdily hip, and spooky. The periodicity of The Light Years feels more ambitious due to its dual time frame, and the tone is decidedly more serious. The theme of failure and loss that infuses the play clearly sets it apart. In my own response to the play I urged them to keep their sights on the life force that pulses within it anyway. Of course recent events in our country force me to take a second look at this theme, especially if we name it “Hillary’s disappointment.” The Dylanesque paradox that failure and progress are embedded in each other contains a certain zen anti-materialism. At the same time, both scientists and businessmen know that early experiments and business models in pursuit of a larger theory or idea necessarily end in numerous failures before the winning formula is discovered. 

For the artist, losses force a reconsideration of those things we can control, which are all on the inside. The beauty of The Light Years lies in its perspective. Technologically speaking, the distance between 1893 and 1933 is vast. By 1933, Einstein’s theory of relativity was accepted science. Time past and time future interpenetrate time present. This reality prevails within the characters of Hillary and Hong Sling who straddle both time frames. And the fluidity and durational integrity of time is incarnated in the form of the play, for which both time frames co-exist. I find a new potency in the structural dynamic of the play that affirms the survival of the self through an investment in beauty. Once more, in a time of crisis, the artist has something to give us. The world needs you, dear artist. Give to us and we will give it back.