A big kerfuffle erupted 10 days ago because a profane word was used to classify certain places in the world. The story has been covered to death so I won’t rehash it much here.

What I haven’t read or heard talked about much is whether the person making the statement had ever actually been to the places he was categorizing. Given that it doesn’t seem like he has, the statements he made suggest he is making huge assumptions about these places and the people who live there, which is problematic whether they contained specific vulgarities or not. After all, we all know what they say about making assumptions.

Put simply, assumptions are dangerous things. They are blinders that inhibit seeing the whole picture or that blot out vital details. Sure, assumptions can make you say stupid things out of ignorance. But for us non-world-leader types, carrying around assumptions is more likely to rob us of opportunities and experiences.

For instance, for a long time I assumed Shakespeare was boring. It sure seemed kind of boring reading it in high school. When I was essentially forced into seeing a Richmond Shakespeare production about 20 years ago, the show opened with the theme from Baywatch playing and two guys running on stage in hot red bathing suits. After I stopped gaping stupidly as the show proceeded to trash my assumptions, I laughed my butt off. In the wake of that experience, certain Shakespeare productions number among my favorites of all time. (And, just as an aside, from what I hear already, Quill’s Titus Andronicus is going blow people’s minds this summer.)

It’s just as easy to make assumptions about people. I was in Starbucks last week and I saw a somewhat scruffy elderly man come in wearing a rumpled suit and coughing quite a bit. He didn’t go to the counter to order a drink so I thought he might be a neighborhood fellow finding a brief respite from the winter weather. I made many quick assumptions based on his clothes and comportment. It wasn’t until I was on my way out that I realized that the gentleman was Walter Braxton, the composer of TO DAMASCUS, looking a bit worse for wear because he was suffering from a cold.

I made many assumptions about Walter before I recognized him, and none of them was that he was a musical prodigy with an astounding depth of knowledge about opera and musical theory. It reminded me of something that happened years ago when I was a teenager and my mom introduced me to a kind and polite elderly man in a restaurant who was wearing a rumpled suit not dissimilar from Walter’s. I barely paid attention, waiting impatiently as they exchanged pleasantries, only finding out later that the man was Al Decker, one of the founders of Black and Decker power tools and certainly the richest man I’ve ever met.

I didn’t realize until a few years ago that I was also carrying around assumptions about art forms

other than theater. I never went to see dance performances, for instance; I just didn’t understand the appeal. Then, when my son was accepted into Richmond Ballet’s Minds-in-Motion “Ambassadors” (Team XXL) program, I began attending dance performances all the time. At approximately 90% of these performances, I end up getting emotional and not infrequently, big fat tears are rolling down my face by the end of the show. It’s happened so often that’s it’s become a joke for my son.

You can probably tell where this is heading: we just opened an opera here at the Firehouse. Assumptions about opera run rampant. As Julinda Lewis mentions in her blog about the show, “the very thought of attending an opera sends shivers up and down” some people’s spines. If people interrogate why they feel that way, I expect it comes from some outdated or ill-defined place, thinking that the music is going to be weird or that only stuffy humorless snobs will appreciate it or just some belief that opera is impenetrable.

I’d challenge people to let go of those assumptions. Not everyone that attends is going to love this opera but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t match your assumptions. So kick those donkeys to the curb and come check it out. And if you’re confused or delighted or angry, come to the panel discussion this afternoon and tell me in person how you feel.

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