In last week’s post, I featured the ambitious theatrical production that gives new meaning to the phrase, “all the world’s a stage.” The Walk seeks to bring attention to the global refugee experience through the journey of an eleven-foot-tall puppet portraying a nine-year-old Syrian girl looking for her mother. The puppet is named Amal (Arabic for “peace”). She, along with her puppetry crew (literally) travel 5,000 miles from Turkey to England. Along the way, they interact with thousands, from Pope Francis to unnamed street children. In their exchanges, we encounter profound truths about the human condition.
In that post, I addressed the importance of looking afresh at our surroundings and exploring stories that are far from the dispiriting headlines that pummel our sensitivities day in and day out. Lamenting the drumbeat of despair, I wrote “I found a story that captured my imagination and sent my spirit soaring about the world of possibility if we could but unleash the power of imagination within each of us. It is the tale of an amazing performance art project, monumental in scope and engagingly intimate in its effect.”
The sheer majesty of the project, the way the producers’ work intersected art with life, the allure that a large puppet held for both children and adults struck a chord with me. Amal’s footsteps echoed in my heart and mind. As I was about to leave it behind for other subjects, a brief respite in my weekly writings, I found I could not escape its haunting imagery—both in its behind-the-scenes production and its often-surprising “performances” to unsuspecting audiences along the way.
And apparently it was not just with me. The post was the most popular on my site since last winter. A story about The Walk aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. And the New York Times printed a three-page spread in this past weekend’s Arts and Leisure Section. And then I came across an unrelated opinion piece by David Brooks entitled The Awesome Importance of Imagination.
So, rather than move on, I decided to do something I haven’t done in more than four years of writing these weekly posts—take another look, drill down on the same story and uncover some of its broader truths. From NPR, I learned that The Walk is the latest project by London-based theater company Good Chance, in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company. Its artistic director, Amir Nizar Zuabi, who dubs The Walk a “pilgrimage slash theater show” was born in East Jerusalem. He comes from a mixed family. His father is a Palestinian Muslim and his mother’s family is Jewish-European. The production was three years in the planning; the trek took four months to complete and would make over 140 stops on its route.
At the turn of the century, I served as Director of Communications for the United Church of Christ. We started a department called MICA, the Ministry of Imagination, Creativity and the Arts, brilliantly led for a decade by the Rev. Cliff Aerie. The objective: to infuse innovation into everything we produced, from the denomination’s annual reports (a children’s book, a graphic novel) to presentations at biennial General Synods (animated video sets in the plenary hall, our own version of 12-foot-tall puppets) in order to inspire new ways of thinking on the brink of a new millennium.
In Brooks’ article, I was reminded again of the importance of such an approach. Especially in a world fraught with division—from partisan politics to school board meetings—imagination is not a luxury, but a necessity, if we are to broaden our collective vision and engage empathetically with one another to address the urgent issues of our day.
Brooks writes, “A person who feeds his or her imagination with a fuller repertoire of thoughts and experiences has the ability not only to see reality more richly but also—even more rare—to imagine the world through the imaginations of others.
“Imagination helps you perceive reality, try on other realities, predict possible futures, experience other viewpoints. And yet how much do schools prioritize the cultivation of this essential ability?
“What happens to a society that lets so much of its imaginative capacity lie fallow? Perhaps you wind up in a society in which people are strangers to one another and themselves.”
So, may we all continue to walk with Amal, exercising the muscles of our imagination, opening new lenses on one another’s lives. May we discover that the wonders of human possibility are more than we could ever have asked for or imagined.