I spend a lot of time wondering why theater matters. This is not to say that I question its importance, I am just constantly questioning why I think it is so important. My answer changes from week to week.
On Thanksgiving Day I ran along lake Michigan with my father and sister. The sky was clear, music was loud, and my mind went wandering. I won’t go into it, but I have a pretty active imagination. When I run, I see things in my mind’s eye and sometimes feel like different people. I don’t remember what I imagined that morning, but it was jarring to come back to reality and see my father running behind me. Although I can’t be sure, I doubt his mind wandered as far from the lakeshore path as mine did.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed about getting lost in my imagination. I blame it on being a theater artist. Often, I disappear into the world of the play I am working on and so, I give myself permission.
In the space of a theater, we all (audience and actors and makers) get permission. So, this week, I will answer, “why does theater matter?” with this:
Theater is essential because it allows us to see others (and then hopefully ourselves) in extraordinary circumstances. In my mind, there are two categories: imagined circumstances in the world of the play and the actual extraordinary circumstances of the actors in performance.
First, we see extraordinary circumstances in the world of the play. It is through this world that we are able to experience and analyze moments without actually having to live them. For instance, leading a revolution, seeing a ghost, or going on a journey. I read somewhere that dreams work in a similar way. In our dreams, we try out different circumstances and are allowed to play out situations in our minds. In a play, we can see these imagined circumstances played out before us. We are exposed to worlds, opinions, situations that are outside of our experience and we learn from them. In theory, it widens our perspective. It’s why a diversity of perspectives is essential in any play, and in any subscription season of a theater.
Second, we experience the extraordinary in the theatrical experience outside of the world of the play. In theater we see people sing their faces off, or do magic, or dance, or work with specificity and empathy transforming before our eyes. This is talent. People do things on stage that require an extraordinary amount of energy, practice etc. At the same time, to those of us watching, it is not totally out of our grasp. I am always amused when non-theater people talk about doing theater. People tend to fall in one of two categories:
- People who say they could never do that.
- People who think that it wouldn’t be so difficult.
I believe that the feeling that comes from living between these two perspectives is one of the elements that keeps audiences excited about live performance. On the one hand, they would never do it. They say, “it’s too scary” or that they “don’t have any talent.” And yet, theatre isn’t rocket science (I’m not sure I like this phrase – but it makes my point). There is something that allows many to feel that they could be that actor in that performance if they really wanted to.
In the context of watching a play, we are able to dive into a story that is totally out of our own realm of experience, and we see actors (and people not so unlike ourselves) live in that experience and become something bigger.
Through this experience, we are invited to imagine ourselves beyond our everyday persona and capabilities. It is in this imaginative headspace that we remember all of the facets of ourselves. We can step into different shoes and walk around. Here, we deepen empathy.