In Japan, there is a formal and popular process of designating as Living National Treasures persons who embody important intangible cultural properties in the accomplishment of certain traditional arts and crafts or performing arts. It is considered, as one would expect, a great honor to be so identified.
While this idea is specific to Japan’s reverence for its ancient arts and traditions, I think it could be adapted to American culture by designating individuals who contribute intangible social value to our society through the performance of their arts, and my first nominee would be Alan Alda.
Fifty years ago, he became a nationally recognized figure on most people’s television screens, starring as Hawkeye in “M*A*S*H.” In his hands, it’s been said, the character from the earlier novel and film “evolved into a man of conscience trying to maintain some humanity and decency in the insane world into which he has been thrust.”
For the past five decades, Alda the actor has never been out of the public eye and remains instantly recognizable. The man himself exudes the sincerity, humor, and charm that make us want to listen to him.
A Water Mill resident for many years, married since 1957 to the former Arlene Weiss (a gifted writer and photographer), and the father of three daughters, he has leveraged his prominence to champion women’s issues and the Equal Rights Amendment. To this observer, Alan and Arlene appear to be the best of friends, real pals. In 1976, The Boston Globe called him “the quintessential Honorary Woman: a feminist icon.”
What I think elevates Alan Alda to the status of a Living National Treasure is his commitment to improving all forms of interpersonal communication through the application of acting techniques to achieve empathetic give-and-take in formal settings as well as in everyday life.
In his book “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” (Random House, 2017), he describes how improvisation methods help actors enhance the persuasiveness of their performance and how the rest of us can learn to communicate more effectively using the same methods. “There is a body of scientific literature on responsive listening,” he writes. “In acting, this kind of relating is fundamental. You don’t say your next line simply because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it. . . . For an actor, it’s the difference between planning how you’re going to behave, which looks like acting, and finding your performance in the other person’s eyes, which makes you respond to one another — and which looks like life.”
He continues: “I came to the conclusion that, even in life, unless I’m responding with my whole self — unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you — I’m probably not really listening. But if I do listen — openly, naively, and innocently — there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us. . . . All of this suggests to me that an inescapable product of improvisation is empathy.”
Alda has notably carried his talents into the world of science. For a dozen years he hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers.” In 2009, he initiated Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The essence of this program is to train scientists and doctors in improvisation methods to help them communicate their essential messages effectively — so that they are understood by their listeners.
“It was clear that the ability to read the other person is a powerful tool. And,” he writes, “that it helps not just in relating to another person, but even among whole groups of people.” What could be more important than that those who know how to save us can make themselves known and understood by the powers that be and by the general public?
The National Academy of Sciences recognized this important contribution by awarding Alda the Public Welfare Medal “for his extraordinary application of the skills honed as an actor to communicating science on television and stage, and by teaching scientists innovative techniques that allow them to tell their stories to the public.”
This honor mirrors, in a way, the Japanese tradition of recognizing individual artists who give to their nation values whose significance rises above the tangible and immediate: the intangible gift of a Living National Treasure.
Ana Daniel has taught at Southampton College and had a 30-year career as a management consultant for a Wall Street firm. She lives in Bridgehampton.