In the 1960’s, Ron Jones, a young Palo Alto history teacher, embarked on an intriguing experiment that deterred his students from the allure of totalitarianism, which in turn led to a secretive fascist state on campus.
Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts will explore that astonishing “The Third Wave” experiment during The Wave, a live theatrical production that’s based on the true story. Jon Kovach wrote and stars in the production, and Jones will be present at each performance for talkbacks.
“I’m pretty fortunate. I’ve seen version of this play in Hong Kong, Berlin, Jerusalem – so I’ve seen lots of representations, and the consequence of people experiencing the story,” Jones told Hamptons.com. “I suspect that will be somewhat similar in Sag Harbor. I will enjoy people talking about the issues. It prompts us to begin a discussion about how easily we give up our freedom.”
We caught up with Jones to learn more about how the project quickly ballooned out of control.
What led to this experiment?
RJ: I was teaching history and I was curious about the Holocaust and the Nazi experiment, and I thought I would try to give students a feeling of what it was like to be in a dictatorship.
What was the students’ response to the experiment when you introduced it?
RJ: The introduction was a one day exercise in discipline where I would just order the students around, have the room clean for a change, have them go outside the classroom and then race back into the classroom and sit down, have them sit with their posture changed to affect them – feet flat on the floor, hands behind their back – students chanting discipline. It was that feeling of discipline is important if you’re going to be a successful athlete or student. So I thought that would be enough.
How did it expand from the initial introduction?
RJ: When I returned to class the second day, I was just stunned. The students were sitting there just as I had left them. A zipper like smile on their face wanting to go on. I didn’t know what go on meant. I hadn’t planned for a second day. I simply went to the blackboard and wrote Strength through Community, and spontaneously started to lecture on the value of being a part of a group, a movement, a cause. Doing something perhaps bigger than one’s self. Perhaps helping each other to have success.
How long did the experiment last?
RJ: Five days.
How many students were involved?
RJ: Initially, the class had 30, but by the end there was over 200. They were coming from different schools. It wasn’t restricted just to my school.
How did it grow beyond your high school?
RJ: I think students began to be excited about the variety of things – the exclusion of the bright students, the idea of putting up posters, of being a part of something. One of the biggest surprises was when we excluded the very bright students, it left that middle group that had not normally achieved success – those students that wanted to go home with a good grade for the first time – they seemed to be really energized by the witch hunts we had, by the trials that took place in the class, by the sense that they were important for the first time.
Were you surprised at the experiment’s results?
RJ: The experiment kind of ended in an attempt to change everything and introduce the students to a new leader that would be a film of basically the Holocaust and Hitler, but the experiment ended with that, but it remained a secret in our souls for the next ten years. It was never talked about. That was very similar to what happened in Germany after the war. People claimed they didn’t know about the concentration camps, they didn’t know about the Holocaust, and we had that same shamefully feeling in our souls. We gave up our freedom at the thought of being better than somebody else.
For that many kids to keep something like that quiet, especially in that age group, is surprising.
RJ: Yes. We just had our 50th anniversary last week at the school where it took place. It was fascinating to go back in that place and see students and parents that I had encountered 50 years ago.
What do they think of the experiment now?
RJ: The students have made a documentary and that’s what was shown at the anniversary event. It was called Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave, but many of the students that were in the documentary were there. It tells the story through their eyes, not mine.
How would you describe the experiment?
RJ: A mistake. A very young teach, naïve and always expecting someone to come into the classroom and question what was going on. And that didn’t happen. Another teacher, the principal, a parent – it just did not happen. It came very fast, it was only in one week, but that question of someone questioning would have been very wonderful. Eventually, there were two women in the class that did protest, although that alarmed the group more and give them more energy. My wife protested. My wife was saying personally to me, “I don’t like who you’re becoming. What happened to your questioning and your kindness?” Her alertness basically forced me to think about how to change it.
What do you hope that viewers take away?
RJ: Well, it’s a cautionary story and has a lot of parallels to today. I think that when a fascist state offers simple answers to solutions, when it offers the idea of it being part of a group that’s better than other people, and to exclude non-believers, it’s a parallel of what’s going on in our own country.
The Wave can be seen at Bay Street Wednesday, April 5 through Saturday, April 8, with a special additional Saturday matinee performance. Tickets range from $20 to $45.
Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.