One “Heluva” Dilemma: The Social Relevance Factor

by John Weaver, Perry High School (CAN)

I sat around a dining room table with several of my coaching friends one unseasonably warm Saturday evening, decompressing from the day’s events.

My colleagues meticulously examined their students’ critique sheets as I stuffed my face with chips smothered in “Heluva Good!” dip.  I was suddenly taken aback by a groan heard ‘round the world (okay… ‘round the dining room).

“’Be more socially relevant.’  I’m sick of seeing this comment on ballots.”  Between chip-and-dip inhalations, I commiserated with my friends.  I listened as my colleagues evaluated the comment, which slowly descended into a full-on existential crisis.  “Can’t a speech be just that—a speech?”

“Regardless of what we think of this binary view, it exists, and many judges seem to consider these connections in their judgements.”

Can’t a performance just be entertaining, or does it truly have to be a part of some larger commentary?  The answer is simple: it can be whatever a coach and competitor decide it should be.  There is, after all, no OSDA rule stating that the speaker must connect the performance to some greater purpose.

But if the comment is being made—if judges pen the phrase each Saturday morning—it suggests that audiences are thirsty for that connection.

We live in an era of change, debatably one akin to the social movements of the 1960s.  As a result, we read and view stories with a sort of double-vision.  Suddenly, films such as the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters or 2017’s Wonder Woman are heralded as feminist works celebrating the genius of women, as opposed to being merely entertaining stories whose protagonists just happen to be women.

Books such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, a young adult novel about an African-American girl shot to death by a white police officer, become exemplars of racial violence and inequality instead of simply being tragic tales about characters who just happen to be different races.  Songs such as Katy Perry’s “Firework” become anthems for the LGBTQAI community instead of simply being songs about general empowerment.

Regardless of what we think of this binary view, it exists, and many judges seem to consider these connections in their judgements.  It could all just be another stylistic anomaly, but the mere fact that it’s a recurring comment suggests otherwise.

I was taught by my coach (some 20 years ago) to always “remember thy audience.”  So we coaches have a choice to make: do we teach our students that their ten minutes should be dedicated to unearthing a buried societal sin, or that their time is best spent helping audiences forget the problems surrounding us?

It’s a complicated question with an even more subjective answer, and one that we must ultimately address on our own.

While a ponderous message is all well and good, how do we find the social commentary in a Don Zolidis piece about a zombie apocalypse?  How do we make amusing-yet-trivial literature something extraordinary?  Again, the answer is simple: we can’t—at least, not in the interpretation of literature events.

There are OSDA rules that prevent us from altering an author’s intent, and if we try to force the literature to fit a mold, it likely will feel inauthentic.  We do, however, have the power to choose material that speaks to a socially aware audience, and it’s not all a litany of Sylvia Plath novels.

“The material is out there for us to rediscover or unearth from obscurity.”

Steve Martin’s The Underpants explores gender politics through a story of a woman who inadvertently moons the king.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike considers the demise of family values through three middle-aged, single siblings who are named after their parents’ favorite characters from Chekhov’s plays.

There are so many comedic memoirs by writers the likes of David Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling.

The material is out there for us to rediscover or unearth from obscurity.

So here I sit, several weeks later, devouring yet another bag of chips (again slathered in dip), enduring my own existential crisis as I’m inundated by news stories of government shutdowns, border walls, FBI investigations, and arrests.

Despite it all, I take comfort in knowing that, regardless of the decisions I make as a coach, the solutions to our problems can be found in the next generation.