Craig Johnson is in falsies and a wheelchair. Stacia Rice is in a fleshy nude-colored fat suit, practicing carrying a tray up and down the makeshift staircase in the middle of the stage. Peter Rothstein is grumbling at the spots on his spectacles and repeatedly holding them up to the stage lights. I’m impossibly gassy and trying to time my prrts to coincide with the more vigorous sound cues, only succeeding occasionally. It’s tech week and I’m trying to meditate on the function of the performing arts, between wondering how I’m going to get that piano upstage right in the dark without taking out John Middleton’s kneecap and reminding myself to watch my mouth in front of the children.
I ask John if he has any thoughts on the function of the performing arts and he responds with a nervous expression and something about the chapter in Peter Brooks’ book The Empty Space that likens theater to the voodoo priests of indigenous cultures who used to drink rum, channel the gods and counsel the clan members on problems with their crops. Apart from the rum, I don’t see the connection to what we theater folk do today, so it’s back to stewing on the question while we run the shift between act one, scene two and act one, scene three again. And again.
This is an important question for me. One that haunts me, hangs out in the periphery of every production. It’s a question of how and why and whether I value what I do—no small consideration as I try to carve out a path into adulthood. What if Olivier was right when he told Dustin Hoffman that an actor’s motivation for performing is just Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me...? Surely there are nobler things for which to strive.
When I was 22, I decided I was done with theater. I graduated from college and joined the Peace Corps. I decided that theater was masturbatory and self-indulgent and there was real work to be done in the world. Enough playing dress-up; it was time to dive into heat and disease, test my physical and emotional limits, and save the dying world. And if I couldn’t save it, I wanted at least to know it, to have experienced a truth other than and outside of my own thus far. To be down in the shit, so to speak.
I moved to Burkina Faso and succeeded mainly in confronting a vast spectrum of shades of gray, the weakness of my American immune system and the paradox of great joy among the destitute. I came home a little desperate and lost and spent another six months flailing around the country, living out of a van, still hoping to find a righteous path. Eventually I wandered back to Minneapolis and got a couple of big-kid jobs. One of them was working front of house at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Surrounded by actors and theatrical energy once again, something in me yearned and pulled, shouting, “I can do this too! I shouldn’t be behind the ticket counter. I should be on stage!” That old bitch Pride roped me back in and before I knew it, I was going to auditions, getting cast and surrendering to the momentum of a burgeoning career.
But I have never put that doubting voice to rest—the one that says theater is a cute diversion, a refuge for the needy and the attention-hungry, a waste of intellect, ability and ambition. So I read books—Lipton, Bogart, Brooks, Mamet—hoping one of them can tell me why this thing I’m called to is important and useful. Sometimes I highlight a helpful passage here and there: Mamet says that theater represents the dream life of society. Jack Lemmon told James Lipton that acting is a “glorious profession,” because actors have the ability to change lives by making people think about something they never had before. Peter Brooks says the true function of theater is to rise above fragmentation and conflict and achieve moments of communion with mankind. Yet I’ve never felt quite satisfied.
One of the most fascinating theories I came across was back when I was a linguistics major in college: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the language you speak dictates the thoughts you are capable of having. If you don’t have a word for something, you can’t conceive of it. This fueled my desire to learn many languages, believing that the more vocabulary I had and the more I understood about the relationships between words, both within and between different languages, the closer I would get to some sort of truth.
I imagine that Truth is like the sun at high noon. Each philosophy or lifestyle is like a thatch hut in a giant circle with the sun in the center overhead. Each hut has its own window in its own shape in its own unique place in the wall facing the sun. In effect, everyone has an angle on Truth that differs from their neighbors’ view. None is wrong, but none is complete.
What I have always wanted is to go from hut to hut. To learn every word for every thing. To experience the whole available range of what it is to be alive.
And what better vehicle for that than theater? Theater allows you to slip into the skin of someone who speaks differently than you, has seen and felt things differently than you. How expansive! How enlivening! How very far from the notion that we do this because we’re so mired in ourselves that we want everyone to look at us—although that may be also true. There is room for so much to be true.
“There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.” –Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
So maybe, like Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s book The Moviegoer, we all have good and selfish reasons for doing what we do. We theater folk, we artists, trot from hut to hut and invite the village to come with us—to see the view from over here, and here, and here. It expands our collective notions of what is possible and what is real. It inspires compassion, empathy and wonder. Human beings delight in discovery. Theater reveals whole new worlds for us to explore, both as creators and audience.
The fact is I never felt particularly noble when I was sweltering in Third-World Africa either. I turned out to be a rather ineffectual teacher of hygiene and sex education when I was doubled over with intestinal parasites. Maybe I’m too well acquainted with my own motives to ever feel really righteous. Maybe the important thing is to simply do what we are called to do to the best of our abilities and leave the musing on function to the scholars. After all, this rum isn’t going to drink itself. ❦