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We Are Not Above the World

November, 2002

There are many kinds of theater in the world; some of them might not come to mind immediately when thinking about this art. Some are done under tents, some are done on stilts, some are done while walking across fire, some are done while healing the sick, some are even done in theaters.

One kind is done in jet aircraft at supersonic speeds, usually at air shows, especially by aerobatic teams such as the Navy’s Blue Angels, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the Royal Air Force Red Arrows, and the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds. There are some elements in common with ordinary theater, such as bowing to the crowd, but they can be done with a certain flair, as when the Royal Air Force Harrier jump-jet pilot flies slowly up to the crowd at about 50 feet in the air, hovers for a moment, then makes the aircraft bow to left, bow to right, bow to center, and sets the bird down.

What do these folks think of themselves? In their own minds, are they the red-hot top guns of the sky? Not always. In a recent documentary, an Air Force Thunderbird pilot insists vehemently that he and his fellow pilots are absolutely ordinary people; that they can teach anyone to do what they do, that what they do is far less important than many ordinary things that ordinary people do all the time–things like creating jobs, teaching children, providing health care, loving their families–perhaps, even though he didn’t say so, practicing the arts, such as the art of theatre.

Obviously they don’t think of themselves as theater artists. They think of themselves as military pilots. But what they do is highly theatrical, very entertaining, and very meaningful for their audiences. They perform with extraordinary levels of skill at what they do, and what they do can be very dangerous; a moment’s break in concentration can put them in the wrong place by over 500 feet. It’s a little more significant than skipping a word in a line.

And they don’t consider themselves special.

How many theater people can achieve that level of humility, to say nothing of humanity? I say "achieve" because pride comes easily; humility is antithetical to basic human nature. How many of us could look an interviewer in the eye, just after a spectacular performance of a taxing, difficult, and perhaps even dangerous show, and insist that we’re nothing special, that we’re just ordinary human beings, that anybody can learn to do what we do if they’ll work hard enough at it, that much of what many, many people do every day–without applause–is more important than what we do?

We would do well to think like that Thunderbird pilot. We would lead better lives and probably do better work. Of all the ingredients that make a better person and a better artist, humility is probably one of the most potent.

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