English man of letters Samuel Taylor Coleridge crafted the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” to describe what it takes for us to be able to take a fresh look at something. When we settle into our seats in a theater and gaze up at the proscenium, that framed and draped window where a play or movie or opera is about to come alive, we are prepared to be, for a moment, less skeptical. We look up at the frame, and wait. We are in an extremely unusual frame of mind.
The first proscenium arch is generally agreed to be the one in Parma, Italy, in the Teatro Farnese, built in 1618. What is quite spectacular about the Teatro is that the space on the stage side of the proscenium is almost as large as the space on the audience side, indicating that the theatre was built to be able to present a complete alternate universe to an audience. (The designers were so committed to the possibilities of the theatrical experience that they also built a huge floodable area in front of the stage, so miniature naval battles could also be staged.)
Four hundred years after that first brilliant concept of a frame was created in Parma, the need for framing is greater than ever. The world is ever noisier. We are less naive. To introduce new ideas, valuable innovations, new ways of seeing and thinking, is an ever-greater challenge.
One of the first things we need to do is see whether our ideas, just like a great painting in a ratty frame, is suffering from its existing frame. Have we allowed someone else to put a frame around our innovation? If so, maybe we need to rip our ideas out of its old tired frame and find a new way to create some space around it.
Have you ever been in a meeting with a number of people, each one trying really hard to be heard? Some people will raise their voices, others will use colorful but misleading metaphors to make their points (Look, we’re in the end zone here and it’s not the right time to punt). And sometimes, not always, there will be one person who sits back and listens. After the right amount of time, there will be a little lull in the storm, and everyone will turn to that quiet person who took their time before speaking. That person has already succeeded in creating a frame for themselves: a frame of silence. Whatever they are about to say, brilliant or not, will be heard.
In the last few days, Senator Chris Dodd opened his committee hearings on health care legislation by saying, in effect, “What we’re about to do will be probably be the most important work we do in our public lives.” That was his way of framing those hearings, of making them separate from all the others of thousands of hearings that would be a customary part of a Senator’s work. This one was different. More important. And we’d better keep an eye on how history might judge us. Dodd had accomplished the near-impossible: making something said in a Senate committee hearing freshly framed.
Back to that audience member waiting expectantly for the curtain to go up. The proscenium has provided a frame for whatever is about to happen. We have temporarily suspended our skepticism and our world-weariness. We are, in this frame of mind, open to new ideas, to being surprised and delighted. The proscenium has framed more than just what is about to take place upon the stage. The proscenium has also framed us.