I believe in the power of theatre to heal, to connect, and to lift ordinary life to a sublime level.
In a college experimental theatre course we were asked to act out a scene with a partner – the first person would get in a stance representing an oppressive fear in his or her life. Then the second person would move the first person’s body until he or she was standing tall and straight, without fear. We were all sort of shy about this, and thought it was kind of lame, but each pair gamely stood at the front of the class, one by one, and performed the exercise. Last to perform was my friend Joe, a sophomore, who had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He stood in front of the class and put his hands on his head, eyes downcast. Our teacher, his partner, gently took Joe’s hands and brought them down, then held them in his own. Joe looked up at him. It took only a few seconds, and we were weeping when it was over.
I’ve never forgotten that afternoon, and how the simple act of representation, of taking a life experience and acting it out bodily for an audience, was so moving. The teacher didn’t remove Joe’s tumor then, but I believe he lifted his spirit – he helped make a connection between all of us who were there – and he made us all feel much more aware of our lives, our future death, our health, our luck. I believe it was a sublime moment in my life, one that caught me by surprise, one that I still remember vividly.
Much of theatre is more complex than this – scripted, costumed, lit, staged, rehearsed. The simple exercise in a classroom, the small community theatre show, the Broadway musical – all have the same end. To connect performers with audience, audience with characters, characters with current real world events. To bring life to imaginary worlds, and invite real people into them, and ask them to think about their own world. To heal people by giving perspective, laughter, a cathartic session of weeping, something provocative to discuss.
Joe stayed involved in the arts out of school. He acted, he practiced stand-up, he wrote plays. He died early this year, in February of 2006, 8 years after our classroom exercise. At his funeral, which he’d planned, he had everyone stand up and sing and hold hands. It was a sublime little theatre moment of its own.
I work in an office, on spreadsheets and documents and policies. But at night I drive from work to rehearsal in the small theatre that I have made my artistic home. It heals my work-weary body to get up and move around. It keeps me connected to my community. It makes me feel alive. Without it, my life would be depressingly ordinary. Because of it, I continue to experience the sublime.
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