By Julia Lederer
On the first day of Playwriting Class at Dalhousie University, fifteen of us (third and fourth year theatre students) sat around a big wooden conference table, and were asked to write down why we wanted to do theatre.
On our last day of the Theatre Studies program, sitting in Directing Class, we were asked the same question again. That time it seemed a little after the fact. As in, “You’re about to graduate with an Honours in Theatre, but why would do you want to do that?” At the time I thought, couldn’t we have discussed this earlier? I had forgotten that we had.
I can’t remember what I said on either occasion. I wonder if now, six years out of Dalhousie, my answer would be wildly different. I don’t think so.
A both tremendously interesting and tremendously frustrating aspect of theatre, is that each artist has different ideas about how to do it affectively; the best ways to approach it, what not to do. I have spent a fair amount of time listening to American Theatre Wing programs, reading about different artists, theories and perspectives, and asking questions when the opportunity arises. I think I am in pursuit of a “right” that I know doesn’t exist, but taunts me like a mirage I want to grasp, or a carrot that is always just a few more feet away. I have been told before that I am on a sort of quest. The idea of a ‘theatrical quest’ seems more embarrassing than basically any alternate type of quest, be it of the Dungeons and Dragons variety, or other. In preparation for my theatrical quest I picture myself suiting up in blacks with a phantom of the opera mask, putting on my character shoes and packing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (to use either as a reference or a weapon) along with a flask of bourbon, a yoga mat, a scroll of paper, and a plume to calligraphy down my theatrical observations in rhyming couplets or song lyrics, that I will later email to Sondheim with a silly subject heading like, “Maybe these will help you finish your hat.”
In this pursuit; on this “quest” of sorts, the one statement that seems to transcend perspective, country, time, gender, religion, age, theatrical style, ideals, hair colour; everything—the only statement that I can reason to be theatre fact; theatrical doctrine, is:
If you can do anything else, you should.
If you CAN do anything else, you should. Sure, anyone and everyone CAN do something else, if that were the literal qualification for pursuing work in the theatre then theatre wouldn’t exist. I take this to mean, If you can do anything else, without being completely and utterly miserable, you should. Or, If there is anything that you are remotely close to as passionate about, then you should do it. That is certainly a question I’ve asked myself, and the answer is always no. But the question of Why remains.
The first chapter of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space is titled, “The Deadly Theatre”. This is most theatre, according the Brook, who warns that Deadly Theatre often passes for living theatre. There are many symptoms and causes of Deadly Theatre—a rigidity in approaching classics, acting with style as opposed to honesty, impatience, lack of time, audiences, etc etc etc etc. I first read this in Directing class at Dalhousie, and this is the chapter of the book (which also speaks of Holy, Rough, and Immediate Theatre) that has remained with me. The main point I took from it, which I continually return to, is that same frustrating question: Why?
Theatre without reason to exist is deadly. So when I see a play, do a play, read a play, that is first the question I always try and answer. Why? Why this play? Why this medium? Theatre is really hard to do. There needs to be a solid motive to do each production, to write, create, perform, direct, produce each play. There are a million possible answers. This reason, whatever it may be—for fun, to teach history, to make a statement, to explore a narrative form, a political perspective or an aspect of the human condition- is essential. It is both the engine and the essence of a play. I think it can be different for different people. It is not static; it can develop and change. It- the why- just has to definitively exist, in order for theatre to continue living.
Of course, the whole idea of Deadly Theatre also causes me to imagine zombies performing Anything Goes while eating the audience’s brains (literally, metaphorically, whatever), which is frightening and intriguing at the same time. But not the point.
I love the theatre. I love how diverse it is in content and form, how it is a different reality we agree to create. I love that theatre can lead us to see the world in different ways, and to question both society and reality. I love how much fun it can be; it is a collective magic trick. And, as an artist, I love how hard it is, because it allows me to be amazed by what I see accomplished around me.
“The moments of grace are fleeting and addictive.” Here, Ellen Lauren is speaking of theatre training, but I think the statement could be applied to the practice of theatre as a whole. Within the swarms of moments of self-doubt and stress and horrible vulnerability and rejection and fear and failure, there are those moments of…well, “Oh yeah. This is why.” And those are the moments you can’t doubt, that you grasp like million dollar bills, and lock in the safe in the back corner of your occipital lobe.
I often wonder if people in other professions feel these moments of great joy in their work. I hope so, but I doubt it is the norm.
And hence the quest continues. Over teeter-totters of contradiction, through tangled forrests of infinite challenges, both practical and artistic…….towards an answer that doesn’t exist.
But if theatre were a question I thought I could answer, a dragon I could slay, I likely would’ve moved on by now.
But what is the answer to that first question? Why do you want to do theatre?
The answer changes, and yet remains the same.
My current answer is primarily about connection and imagination. About the need and want of live experience, in a room, with strangers. To create and build a relationship- some more successful than others- that can only exist in the present, but can resonate beyond in ways I cannot predict. The idea, or hope, that in our cores we all experience versions of the same emotions, and can understand one another, and that theatre can enable or even reveal this.
Each rehearsal period, and each performance of a play, is a sort of quest in of itself, yet far less lonely than the larger one at hand.
Theatre is a collective approach to the question of Why?
That deserves celebration.