Live Theater: Do We Need It?
How do we build the skills we need to live a good life?
Posted March 1, 2018
Tonight is opening night!
The 35 students of the Granville Drama Club know it. They are walking around school today buoyed by butterflies and flush with anticipation for what is to come. I am too – and I’m just the choreographer.
As I think about the pre-show warm-up tonight, I have one goal in mind: I want them all to know how important what they are doing is -- not just fun and entertaining, though it is definitely so – but deeply good.
The show is The Sound of Music – a twentieth century classic in music theater. It already exists as a feature film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Why not just rent the movie? Why perform it again -- live?
Our show will be all acoustic: real people in real time on stage, singing and acting in front of real people, accompanied by a real piano played live. Is this important? Yes.
Why? In live theater, when the story is sung, danced, and acted, those involved -- on stage and in the audience -- are cultivating the skills needed to sustain the health and well-being of individuals and communities.
Tonight, the kids will be telling a story – a story of finding your path, falling in love, and fighting for what you believe. In doing so, they will be participating in an activity as old as human culture.
Human beings are storytellers. We learn from stories about what it means to be human. We learn what to value, when to laugh, how to love. We learn what to expect from ourselves and others, whom to trust, what to believe, and where to place our hope. We find inspiration for imagining what may be and incentives to create what will be.
Still, given that we are already awash in stories told in a wide range of media – books, films, television, cable, video, albums -- why tell the same story again – live?
I am reminded of Native dancer/scholar Daystar/Rosalie Jones, who describes the role of the Storyteller in Native American traditions. Indigenous Knowledge, she describes, lives in the acting, singing, and dancing of the Storyteller. It is knowledge about how to live what the Anishinaabe of the Great Lakes region call Mno-Bimazdiwin ~ "The Good Life": a life of balance, harmony, and respectful relations with the earth.
Stories that are danced, sung and acted-live are multidimensional realities. They invite people to pay attention in particular kinds of ways, and in so doing, they wake up distinct elements of intelligence.
Stories that are danced, sung and acted-live enjoin listeners to focus on multiple levels of sensory patterning. It is impossible to absorb all that is offered in one telling. Listeners must return. The stories need to be retold. That is why they exist. Yet, as they are retold, they change. Thus, listeners need not only focus outwardly in real time on myriad levels, they need to dive inside themselves and call upon their own sensory matrix of memories and experiences so they may sift through multiple versions of a story, parse differing emphases, and discern seeds of meaning.
Over time, a live story opens within those who attend to it an array of sensory potentials – patterns of thinking and feeling, speaking and acting -- that orient them in their pursuit of what they have learned through their engagement with the story about what hurts and what does not. In a given moment, they may find themselves humming a song or remembering a line that provokes a laugh or a smile of knowing, and carries them along in a beneficial way. I cannot tell you how many times this week "I have confidence!" (from Sound of Music) has been plowing through my brain.
The benefits of live storytelling may be even more pronounced for the actors on stage. In becoming actors who can sing, dance, and act out a story on their own, the cast of Sound of Music is not only learning to engage multidimensional realities in time and over time, they are practicing empathy.
In taking on a role in a play, memorizing lines is only the beginning. An actor seeks points of resonance between herself and the character that she animates and mobilizes in herself to become the shape of the other. In the process, she must awaken potentials for experience in herself that she has not yet manifest, what modern dancer Martha Graham called “blood memory.”
It is a paradox. The more an actor becomes the character, the more she becomes her own self. The more natural her character appears, the more she is realizing her own capacity for empathy.
Here, empathy is not a skill that passes between self and other. Nor is it a strictly emotional intelligence. Empathy transforms from within; it requires that a person access sensory patterns that support the person in moving as an other. To empathize is to move with.
This skill is vital. From infants to adults, humans cannot build the relationships that we need to secure our health and well being unless we can, to some extent, move with those on whom our lives depend.
Along with empathy, live theater requires that actors exercise the courage to stand up and speak out in front of strangers. It requires resilience and flexibility – the ability to respond to the prop failures, dropped lines, and unforeseen surprises that always occur. It requires stamina and endurance.
In all these ways, live theater invites a person to deepen her relation to her self. For in that moment on stage, that is all there is. In that moment, whatever you can open to receive, whatever you can open to feel, however deeply you can breathe, however strongly you can desire, is what you have to give. Nothing more or less.
Live theater, in the end, provides an occasion for people – on stage and off – to come together, to work together, to create another reality – a community – in which all the parts move in the service of a shared vision. As they help one another, they are helped in turn to go as deep and as far as they each individually can.
Live theater is thus a way of being together that nourishes in each individual the resilience, the hope, the joy, the courage, the focus, and the determination that we each need in order to keep creating the worlds in which we want to live -- on stage and off.
As they enter the theater tonight, the cast of Sound of Music will be doing this work.
Here are some words I wrote and plan to share with them:
what you are doing is important work.
and together you are doing more than any one of you could do alone.
tonight, when people leave the theater, they will leave with a bounce in their step, a smile in their heart.
what was impossible will seem possible.
what was doubtful will seem full of hope.
sadness will reveal itself as a capacity and a yearning for joy.
this is important work. our world needs it.
so when you go out there,
feel grateful to the audience for coming to receive this gift.
feel grateful to one another for enabling you to give it.
feel grateful to yourself for having the courage and the dedication to go out there and give it.
and with your heart full of love,
let it go.
all of your hard work, your many hours, your hopes and fears,
let it all go.
and receive the blessing.
Off to the theater!
Jones, R. M. (forthcoming, March 2018), ‘Dancing the Four Directions: The Spirit of Intuition’, Dance, 26. Movement & Spiritualities, 4:2, pp. 183–94, doi: 10.1386/dmas.4.2.183_1