Theatre: A Seeing Place
My interest in theatre began early and has been nurtured variously along the way. I grew up in a neighborhood packed with kids and remember putting on lively clothesline-curtain plays. I also remember tagging along with my father, Wes Prieb, to Tabor College play rehearsals. Later, I enjoyed participating in high school and college plays and, between 1970 and 1985, I wrote numerous informal drama sketches for the worship life of a number of congregations. In 1986 I enrolled in a few graduate-level theatre courses that eventually led to a graduate degree in Communications and Theatre. Since 1989 I have directed theatre at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.
I value theatre’s ability to show us who we are and who we could be.
I returned to school in 1986 after being out of college for almost twenty years, and three months after our thirteen year-old son died. A friend encouraged me to do something “life-giving,” and I was drawn to the idea of taking a theatre class. I will never forget my first day on the university campus. I peeked into the auditorium and stood in awe of an artistic stage set. I felt transported into another world. It was the beginning of countless theatre experiences which have contributed deeply to my life.
Yet since that first day of graduate school there have also been times when I wonder why I continue to direct theatre. I wonder about directing on days when I am indirect with my directions, and on days when I am in touch with my fear of disapproval. I wonder about the conflict between the people-pleasing part of me and the risk-taking demands of live theatre. Plus there is the never-ending challenge of inadequate facilities, limited finances, and the fact that most people prefer going to movies.
EXPOSURE TO ANOTHER WORLD
So why do I still direct live theatre? What remains life-giving to me? For one thing, I value being a part of the compelling way theatre invites us to take a look at ourselves and at others. It is gratifying when the content of a play provides a deeper awareness of those in “another world.”
I will always remember our experience with a play which examined the lives of two diplomats during the Cold War. The student who played the role of the Soviet diplomat was majoring in political science and was fascinated with the play. One night after an exceptional performance, I found him sitting alone backstage, unable to make the transition from the play to the reception line. He said he got caught up in the world of the play and with the way this play “put a face” on the people and events he had studied. He said he would never forget the opportunity to take a closer look at the lives of those world leaders.
Following a play about Bosnian women refugees, a male audience member, who was drawn into the stories of these women, observed, “I will never again look at violence toward women in the same way.” The immediacy and point of view of this performance offered him and others in the audience a lasting impression of victims of war and brutality. I think they would agree with Walter Ong, a scholar in the field of languages and culture, who insisted that “realizing in an intense way one’s identity with someone who one is not remains one of the most human things one can do.”
A theatre practitioner, agreeing with Ong, has added,
Our world desperately needs more people who try to understand how others feel and think. We believe peacemakers have always been encouraged by precisely that motive. . . . [T]he best reason to pursue oral interpretation . . . is to pursue the most annealing act of which humans are capable: understanding. 1
It is also gratifying when, as a result of participating in a play, performers look at themselves in new ways. While rehearsing The Crucible, the performer playing John Proctor was unable to deliver words of accusation convincingly. But in the course of rehearsing Proctor’s lines and intentions, the student came to see that under similar circumstances he had the potential to make accusations in the same way. He saw ways he was like Proctor, sometimes unable to take responsibility and sometimes unable to come to terms with guilt and shame. He especially appreciated that he was also able to come to identify with Proctor’s courage and integrity.
After his experience of playing Proctor, that student could affirm what actor Willem DaFoe has noted: “I believe that under the right set of circumstances we are all capable of anything, and that acting allows the deepest part of your nature to surface, and you are protected by the fiction as it happens.” 2
I worked with another student performer who often played aggressive and intimidating characters. I remember the day she became more aware of her own tendency to control others. There have, in fact, been numerous experiences of cast members developing their personal “character” while developing their performance character.
HELPS US TO SEE
I keep on directing because I value being part of a “seeing place,” the literal meaning of theatron. I value theatre’s ability to show us who we are and who we could be. More recently I have come to a deeper appreciation for some of the reasons theatre helps us better observe ourselves and others. The very nature of theatre helps us “see.” In this regard, the textbook Theatre: A Way of Seeing is aptly named. 3
At its best, theatre, like other fine arts, takes people through an experience, a powerful way to have one’s eyes opened. Issues, people, and events are participated in more than talked about. If it is true that experience is the best teacher, then theatre is an effective way to “see” and to learn.
Audience members may not participate as directly as the performers, yet their intellects, emotions, and senses are actively engaged. The audience is drawn into the event. In some sense, the experience is not only happening “before our eyes,” but also happens within persons in the audience.
One of the most gifted performers with whom I have had the privilege of working is quick to recognize and identify with the tensions, struggles, and changes in a character. He explains: “I recognize those experiences. They ring true for me. I want to take the audience through the experiences with me in a way that will invite them to recognize, experience, and reexamine these tensions and struggles.”
When performers and audience members encounter a moment of truth together, the moment seems “magic.” These magic moments of a shared experience create conditions for further insights and realizations to take place and create possibilities for transformation.
A number of years ago I went to a performance of a play written for young audiences but attended by a large number of people of all ages. During a high point of the play, a loving grandfatherly circus bear was about to leave a young girl who was grieving her own grandfather’s death. During one of those “you could hear a pin drop” moments, a four year-old boy in the audience, holding back his tears, said tenderly and quietly, “Bye, bear.” It seemed to me every person in that audience who had known separation or rejection shared both pain and beauty in that single moment. The shared experience is still with me and, I am confident, with others who were present.
A COLLABORATIVE ART
The rehearsal process itself is based on understanding and respecting the significance of a collaborative experience. While there is a place for discussing and analyzing the play, it is usually more beneficial to get the play “on its feet,” to learn by doing, and to trust the text to teach through the process of rehearsing it. It is not uncommon for a cast and crew to marvel at ways rehearsing the text together guides the interpretation and understanding of it.
Theatre is intrinsically a collaborative art. Collaboration among the playwright, cast, crew, and audience is at its core. Collaboration creates the conditions for something new to take place at each rehearsal and performance. Of all the performing arts, theatre is the most unpredictable. Anything can happen—and it does.
Although collaboration is not easy, profound learning takes place in the context of community. The presentation of human interaction on stage is most authentic when there is also genuine interaction among all those present—among performers, designers, and audience members. On the days when new and often unexpected interactions and connections are experienced, I know why I continue to direct live theatre.
AN INVITATION OFFERED
Finally, I value the noncoercive nature of the shared theatre experience. Audience members choose to attend and their response is voluntary. My experience as a teacher, director, and parent confirms that very little learning and change take place unless the learner is coming toward the place of learning or toward the one teaching. I value theatre experiences that are invitational and noncoercive and that give audience members space, respect, and dignity.
Art is often prophetic and confrontational. I most esteem, however, when artists confront out of respect and regard for others. In my experience, “in your face” communication results in people closing their eyes more often than opening them. I respect the kind of aesthetic distance that, ironically, draws people in.
For all these reasons, theatre draws me as well. I am blessed to provide settings in which we can better see ourselves and others. And I desire to be an ongoing part of those collaborative, invitational, and life-giving theatre experiences.
- Charlotte Lee and Timothy Gura, Oral Interpretation. 9th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 10.
- Willem DaFoe, quoted in Robert Cohen, Theatre: Brief Version. 6th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2003), 55.
- Milly S. Barranger, Theatre: A Way of Seeing. 3d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1991).