This Friday I took some of my friends to my favorite entertainment in Atlanta – the Shakespeare Tavern – for a performance of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew.

The Atlanta Shakespeare company made me cackle intensely enough to probably earn some stares from the theatergoers around me. Shakespeare did well in writing a play with humor (if not moral lessons – a straight reading of this play is thoroughly sexist) that has lasted for four hundred years.

What made this play even more enjoyable, though, was the cast’s own insertion of wit. The ASC team and the director for this show made deliberate choices on how to interpret certain of Shakespeare’s lines and how to play them to the audience. They read the original iambic pentameter, but they might insert certain funny looks, sounds, mannerisms, appearances, gestures, or even blatant anachronisms of their own.

When I began to notice this, the performance itself became less interesting than watching how the cast worked – imagining and appreciating the process by which they came to the performance of 400-year old lines in ways that could make a modern day audience die laughing.

I only noticed all of this because I spent time as an actor in high school. I performed in three small plays in a small school, but I got training from a director who knew what she was doing. By watching and learning from her, I picked up on some of the thought that goes into the playing of even the smallest details.

In other words, I enjoyed this play far more as a consumer because I was also (at one point) someone who could create the same thing I was receiving from the actors on stage. I was a maker as well as a consumer. 

Because I am a fellow actor (or was at one time), I experienced the work of actors at a deeper and more intellectually engaging level. If I had just been a passive consumer, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it far less. I might have laughed at many of the jokes still. I would have found the play enjoyable. But a large part of me – my mind – could not have been engaged.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to performances. Every time we receive or consume something, we can approach that thing either as a passive consumer or as what I call a “maker-consumer.”

Let’s use the example of a dish at a restaurant.

The passive consumer will go for the best-tasting and most satisfying meal. They do not know or care how it is made. They might ask a waiter to make a recommendation, but their curiosity about the process of creation ends there. The passive consumer’s experience of the value of the meal is pretty one-dimensional: does it meet my hunger needs?

In a sense, what the pure consumer is doing is not a bad thing at all. It’s a wondrous thing and a good thing that we don’t have to know how to get our own food. The division of labor matters, and expertise in all things is impossible. In this sense of passivity, we are all passive consumers in some things.

The maker-consumer, on the other hand, has some basic knowledge of cooking. He is probably an amateur cook himself. He knows what goes into sourcing the best ingredients. He knows what kind of training or background the chef is likely to have. He has enough business sense to know how the restaurant is making money, which dishes will do best, etc. He might start up conversations with the staff about the restaurant or the dish, eager to explore this interest.

The maker-consumer is not superior to the passive consumer for having this knowledge, but his experience of the meal when it arrives will be. The passive consumer will get the value he paid for. The maker-consumer can get more. He has a multi-dimensional experience of value because he receives value from the process of creation itself.

Weird, right? But I’d be willing to bet you’ve had this experience many times. Think back to all the times your otherwise normal commercial experiences brought you unexpected curiosity, interaction, appreciation, or camaraderie. Likely these were ones where you shared in common a language of skill or knowledge with the seller. You were fellow makers engaging in a trade, not an expert and a consumer.

The nice thing is that this kind of exchange relationship is easy enough to get. I am not and likely will never be a real professional actor. But just a little bit of left-over theatre experience was enough to give me a new level of appreciation for a performance. Your “maker” experience may take even less time. Just start asking the right questions. Imagine the maker process of the things you take for granted on your next shopping trip.

 

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