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Social Drama

Emily Anne Gibson looks at support for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the March for Life protest, and music concerts through the lens of theatrical performance. logo

Steelers celebration at Super Bowl XL (courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

"Football is a major sport in the United States because of its dramatic enactment of social values of violence, bureaucracy, sexism, and commercialism." - Mary Jo Deegan & Michael Stein, American Drama and Ritual: Nebraska Football

One of the things that I just don't get about Pittsburgh is the city's general obsession with sports - specifically the Steelers football team. I don't follow the sport myself, but I did grow up in a house of football fans, so it's not as though the idea is foreign to me. But let it be said: I have never witnessed a city so utterly invested in and devoted to its football team. When the Steelers lose, there's a riot. When the Steelers win, there's a riot.

I've had a number of conversations about why this is, and ultimately, the answer comes down to social drama. The Steelers are a uniting force in a very segregated city. Pittsburgh is split into districts so distinct that when you cross the street you can tell you've moved from Shadyside to East Liberty. A big part of this segregation is economic status, but another huge player is race. And the Steelers have been a key unifying element of the Pittsburgh culture. When people rally around the football team, it suddenly doesn't matter who you are - as long as you love the team.

So, when there is a huge party for a Superbowl game (or when a riot ensues afterward), we get a social drama. A piece of life that is a performance, whether anyone means it to be or not. We've got costumes (football jerseys and black and yellow attire). We've got conflict (will they win the game?). We've got performance of roles (in which people act out of character because that's the thing to do). Essentially, in these huge group gatherings, every individual becomes a part of the whole, and actions they would normally consider wrong (like flipping over cars or burning sofas) suddenly seem acceptable. It brings people together to share an experience; isn't that what the theater does?

Football isn't the only place this appears, although to a girl living in Pittsburgh it's the obvious choice. Protests also have these elements. The spectacle and dramatics involved in a large-scale protest like the annual March for Life make it another obvious example. People make impromptu speeches, become part of a massive parade, and all of it is meant to make a social commentary. Social commentary? Isn't that another element of theater?

Even something as simple as a concert is a social drama. These are all circumstances in which we meld with the people around us and go through an experience together - one that typically makes us forget ourselves. We act as a group: when someone starts jumping up and down at a concert, everyone does it, even though in "normal" circumstances that would be ridiculous. We begin to "perform" the roles of other people, and if we take the opportunity to look at these instances, we can learn a great deal about our culture, how we interact, and our perceptions of how we are supposed to act.


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