I recently saw a touring production of the Broadway show, Something Rotten. It’s a hilarious story about two brother playwrights trying to compete with their rival, the great and popular William Shakespeare. Though written for anyone, the show has special appeal to musical theater and Shakespeare buffs. It’s full of references only we would get.

We were there on a Thursday night and the Buell Theater in Denver was full, but not sold out. Still, it was one of the most enthusiastic audiences I’ve seen in a long time. After the numbers “A Musical” and “Hard to be the Bard,” the applause went on so long that, at one point, the lead actor actually laughed in disbelief.

You see, we weren’t just applauding well-performed numbers, we were applauding ourselves. We were patting ourselves on the backs for getting all the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the things we love, musicals and Shakespeare. We were sharing those passions with everyone else in the theater who got it too, audience and actors alike.

When art really works, it doesn’t just ask us to notice or observe, it asks us to participate. We don’t just “read” a book or “listen” to a song or “watch” a play, we experience them. We become part of them. We see ourselves in the characters, we recognize our own feelings in the lyrics, and we imagine ourselves into the worlds we are visiting.

This year, I read the book A Man Called Ove. On first appearance, Ove is nothing like me. He’s an older man, a curmudgeon, a Swede, and yet, the entire time I was reading that book, I was thinking, “Oh my God, this is me. I’m Ove.”

So in the end, it’s not about us, it’s about the people we hope to reach. The ones who will read our books or watch our plays or listen to our songs. It’s about being raw and showing ourselves so they can see themselves too. Sometimes they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll cry, and sometimes they’ll hate you for what you show them, but always, a connection will be made.

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Also published on Medium.