Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Something about counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve has troubled me all my life. Even before globalization existed as a commonly understood notion, I had always been anxious about the fact that the New Year starts at different times in different parts of the world.

It isn’t fair, I thought as a young lad, if we don’t start the year at the same time. Who gets to make the first resolutions, and will those people stay awake long enough to learn about the resolutions made by people in other parts of the world? Of course, when I was a child we really only dealt with different time zones when we were tuning in to live television on one of the three networks that existed before cable, taking a long flight on an airplane, or waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Now, however, I consider the relationship between time and geography just about every moment of every day. Say I call Alina in Romania: will she still be in the office or should I try her cell phone? Or, hanging up the phone, I consider how awfully groggy David sounded when we just spoke and I remember—oh, no!—he is in Hong Kong this week and I just woke him up in the middle of the night on a relatively inconsequential matter. Progress and globalism have introduced whole new realms of faux pas to be avoided. When I was a child, the world was a distant curiosity for most of the people I knew; now we’re wired to the entire space-time continuum. If, back then, from my perch in Madison, Wisconsin, I was conscious and a bit resentful, for the briefest of moments, of the New Year arriving first in New York City before rolling casually in our direction like a plume of second-hand smoke, I am constantly aware of global interconnectivity these days. It’s like I have a row of clocks on the wall inside my head set to the times of all the world’s major capitals.

Please don’t misunderstand my powerfully sentimental feelings about New Year’s Eve itself. I truly enjoy the celebration and the ritual, raising a glass to friends and family, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” and lining up a few well-intentioned resolutions. I’ve been to a few wild and extravagant parties, I’ve stayed at home for blissfully quiet family time, and one time I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean from a snowy beach, emerging bright red like a newborn baby and gasping for breath. I love all that! New Year’s Eve as a local event, among friends and family who consider their lives a shared journey, works beautifully for me. It becomes more complicated to celebrate New Year’s more globally. Ownership becomes fuzzy. Does the year belong to New York City, Las Vegas, or Hollywood? Must people, say, in Africa and Asia accept the year “branded” by America, like factory seconds with the imprint of previously articulated resolutions about the dissemination of democracy and wealth?

Confronted with so much exhausting competition, we may allow our most fiercely idiosyncratic and wonderful dreams to fade along with our confidence. Like the visions of political candidates corroded by too much market research, honest and personal New Year’s resolutions are difficult to formulate, much less carry out, in the cross-breeze of conformism. For all the grandeur that technology and television bring to New Year’s Eve as it rolls around the globe, accompanied by the chipper commentary of pretty newscasters and the market-testing of pop music, and for all my earnest belief that it is possible for people to hold hands around the globe and make the world a better place, the experience of New Year’s Eve television, to me, is fundamentally simplistic and inauthentic. I think that’s why the holiday leaves so many lonely people maudlin and depressed.

Perhaps it is because I am a creature of the theater, or a child of the Apollo space program, that I have always been captivated by the drama of the countdown. A momentous event is given its power to a large extent because of the countdown ritual itself, leading up to the launch of a space ship, for instance, or the silent rush of a curtain going up at the start of a play. The countdown is just about the simplest and most magical dramaturgical tool ever invented, creating suspense by accelerating our impressions of mounting danger as we hurtle towards the point of no return, together, like the clock running down at a football game. The very action of counting down brings people together around the idea of perfect synchronicity and completion. Most of us recall learning to count down on the playground, our volume and intensity rising, our voices merging as one, as the count gets closer to zero, followed by the inevitably satisfying rebound on the other side of zero: “Blastoff!” or Happy New Year!”

Such collective rituals for experiencing the movement of time seem to me to be an innately human way of acknowledging our own mortality and celebrating the power of community. When millions of us witnessed the New England Patriots in a record-breaking game against the Giants on December 29th, for example, we were first exhilarated by the race against the clock and, then, deeply moved in the moment when we recognized that history had been made. Even the losing Giants embraced the Patriots in their accomplishment. This experience was thrilling to everyone because it was local in nature, despite the size of the television audience. On television you could sense and appreciate the emotional intensity in the stadium, even if you couldn’t actually feel it the way you would have if you were there in person.

On Christmas Eve, my 12 year-old daughter and her chorister colleagues sang in the beautiful service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It is the last Christmas Eve service that they will sing with the choirmaster they know and love, who, after more than 20 years in his position, has been dismissed by the church’s administration for political reasons that have rankled the choristers and their parents. Johnson Flucker is a charismatic man of six and a half feet, passionate, musical, kind, a strong disciplinarian, and full of jokes and magic tricks. I love the fact that this musician’s passion is magic! The day before, he had given special Christmas gifts to all the children: wrist watches with colored leather bands. He cried as he handed out the packages, though he tried hard not to show his sadness in front of the children. We parents bit our lips and cried, too, and the children recognized the intensity of the moment and the importance of the ritual. On Christmas Eve, it is my impression that they sang more beautifully than ever before. But what really got to me was how, as the minutes ticked away towards midnight, all the children kept comparing the time and adjusting their watches, and, at the exact moment that they agreed was midnight, huge smiles spread across all the children’s faces and outward to the rest of the church. They owned the moment and all that it meant, and no atomic clock anywhere in the universe could have made the moment more significant.

My musings on the New Year have led me to my own heartfelt resolution for 2008, which is to take more time this year to contemplate and celebrate the power of what is local, to cherish my family and community, and to nurture the magic of theater’s incredible intimacy. While theater is, for me, an important platform for free expression and untold stories, connecting communities all around the world in our hopes for the future, it is most importantly a small place where people gather to be with one another, to plant the seeds of trust, to admire and honor talent, and to move outward into the world with a message of peace.

It is tradition in Jewish pedagogy that young children are asked to name the most important moment in Jewish history. Was it when God spoke to Abraham on the mountaintop? Or when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God? Or when God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape to the Promised Land? The answer is now: now is the most important moment in history.

Happy New Year to all of you!

John Clinton Eisner

Producing Director