A Flame in the Dark: Theatre as Ignition for Personal and Communal Evolution
NOTE: The opinions expressed within this article belong solely to the Author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Elmwood Playhouse itself or its governing body or volunteers.
As a species we seek to discover meaning from the mystery of existence. Throughout human existence, from the birth of language echoing the myths of our origins or enacting the mysteries of the hunt around campfires, to the technological wizardry of speculating on the mysteries of our relationship to the cosmos, humanity has explored its geneses and possible destiny through the power of story. And while there are various artistic forms of expression which engage and investigate this motif of meaning, there is something that has always been and always will be uniquely compelling about the form of theatre. And that compelling uniqueness is living human beings interacting within the domain of conflict in the present moment.
Sitting in the dark of a movie theatre offers a different visceral experience than sitting in the dark of a theatre offering a live performance. Outside of the advertisements, people scrunching past you with large bags of popcorn cascading its buttery saltiness over your clothing, and the endless previews for future movies that will hopefully entice, there is a subtle quality of detachment. Yes, there are images up on that screen, and they look human, indeed they probably are human, although many these days are computer generated. And as discerning as the script might be, as captivating as the performances are, as spectacular as the special effects may be, there is still something missing, something vital and seemingly elusive, something that wasn’t wrong but at the same time not optimally right.
What is missing is a personal engagement with the immediacy of the living human body and psyche. I may be engaged through film medium with the image of those people, but not with the embodied, moment to moment, living presence of them. And there is a difference. That difference even affects the quality of connection the actors have with the audience. Even after a rewarding film experience I do not necessarily feel like I’m part of a community, I am aware on a felt- sensed level of still primarily existing as a distinct individual within a crowd of people.
While all live theatre experiences do not elevate me to heights of insight, pleasure or noteworthy psychological disarmament, they do provide a different context of experience. Even with the audience buzzing in different conversations, there is something palpable in the sense and feeling of anticipation. It’s like an energetic incense that my psyche breaths in, slightly intoxicating and mysterious, that envelops me in a soft invisible blanket. It’s like a whispered promise. And when the lights dim I find myself poised in that brief moment of not knowing what to expect, and at the same time knowing that I am about to take a journey.
The quality of that journey depends on many factors, including aspects of the production as well as my own state of being and how I engage with what is seen, heard and felt. And while the various aspects of the production are all relevant to the totality of its impact, it is unquestionably the live, in the moment vibrancy of connection between the actors, as well as with the audience, that ignites life and magic into this communal experience. I say communal because on some level, while still very aware of my individual identity, I am also aware of being part of a group that is taking this journey together. Like those times in my life where I have sat around a campfire with others gazing into the flames of burning wood as well as the flames of stars, listening to stories, there is something in the experience of live theatre which reminds me that the journey is taken separately and collectively. It reminds me I am not alone in the quest, in the meaning seeking, in the desire to receive understanding, in the desire to connect.
Life ignites life. And this interaction of living actors engaging with each other and the responsive, living presence of the audience, is the catalyst for such ignition. And like the mystery of existence itself, this process can be inexplicable. Perhaps that is an important part of the equation. That the fundamental nature of our existence is reflected on the stage as a living testimony that we are all actors in our own play and in one another’s plays; that the very nature of theatre and the living stories it enacts cannot help but touch a haunting chord within us of our own existential dilemma. That dilemma, which theatre in its highest form has always attempted to address, involves substantial questions, such as who are we in the context of story, and is there any real significance to that story? Questions that many may ask in the secret quietude of night when we let go of the occupations and distractions of daily life. Questions that don’t always have comfortable answers. Just as good theatre is not always comfortable. Questions, that like good storytelling, have followed our human trajectory through eons of culture. Ever since Adam and Eve in the garden with the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ we have been planting and harvesting the fields of our living along with the unresolved tension of such questions. Why? To know, to recognize, distinguish, comprehend, discern, understand. To know what? Perhaps our experience of who we are in relation to the world and each other. And it is the enduring, forceful testament of theatre, brought to dynamic existence through the breath of life moving its rhythms, intentions, intelligence, and vibrant emotions through flesh and blood actors, that guides and informs our experience through its reflected labyrinth of human existence. An existence that requires a deepening of our awareness.
As a culture we are becoming increasingly aware of what is commonly referred to as “the body mind connection,” that the mind and body are intimately entwined. That our cells have memory. That the human heart is more than a pump and often responds quicker than the brain to external as well as internal stimulus. Of course playwrights and poets have known this for centuries, which is probably one reason why movements of change within a culture are usually reflected first within the arts. It is this mind body intimacy that allows the intelligence of our cells to receive, vibrate to, resonate with, and respond to the aliveness of present, embodied actors in a way that is immediate and different from other medium forms. Something about the immediacy of this engagement stirs within us a visceral response that is unique simply because it is a living, present, in the moment occurrence. An occurrence that may be rehearsed but is not prerecorded; and so it breathes within a space of the unknown; the hypnotic mystery of ‘anything could happen,’ the numinous significance of the now.
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I am sitting in the Music Box Theatre. It’s the end of a play called Jerusalem. Mark Rylance is moving to a large drum and begins drumming. He is sweating and engaging himself in an act that seems the only viable and necessary thing to do in the moment. He immerses himself in this act with primal urgency, with almost manic devotion. He is transcending his character to become shaman, invoking of the dead, the lost, the forgotten; he is embodied humanity crying out and demanding to the Gods . . . “come . . be here . . I need you . . we need you . . . I summon you forth.” The drumming is invocation echoing its wild call throughout the theatre. And then the massive trees on the stage begin to sway. I can feel that breeze also moving through me, its bracing inscrutability, its unexpected cleansing freshness. Then the thought emerges within me. “No, what I think is happening or going to happen isn’t really happening.” Then it happens. It’s an experience of revelation being birthed. Another sound, distant at first, like an echo; like the sound of a far-away cannon going off. But no, nothing so common, it’s something else, something more startling, even astonishing . . . yes, it’s the sound of a large foot, a VERY large foot landing upon the earth. The trees sway more forcefully in the wind which can now be heard along with the unrelenting drumming, and another echo of another foot is heard. My spine straightens. My eyes are glued to the stage unblinking. The rhythm of my breathing increases. My mind and body stunned from the revelation “Oh my God, it’s happening, it’s actually happening”. The sound of another foot, and then another, louder, coming closer. My body is literally vibrating. Another foot falls closer still and the trees quiver from the force; as Rylance, still sweating, still trancelike, still shaman refusing to be broken by the weight of personal and collective history, drumming for his life, for his revenge, for his freedom, for his knowing and not knowing, as the lights finally begin to fade lowering an invisible curtain. And I sit there, almost tempted to be momentarily resentful of the applause, because I have been transported to another realm of existence, I have just traveled down the rabbit hole, been hurtled through an archetypal journey, and my mind and body are still shaking from its potency. Like any near transcendent orgasm I need and want time to just BE with the residue and relevance of the experience.
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I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to direct David Auburn’s penetrating, adroitly structured, and moving play Proof. Like the meticulous maze of a successful proof itself, I could find nothing out of place or superfluous in Mr. Auburn’s play, only an exacting and poetic elegance. It was a most creatively satisfying experience, working with an amazingly talented and giving cast and production staff. The production was hailed with glowing reviews from both newspapers and word of mouth. And yet the most fulfilling and rewarding experience from this entire endeavor came in the form of a phone call from an acquaintance. She wanted me to know that she and her daughter came to see the production during its closing week. At first her seventeen year old daughter didn’t want to see the play, but at the last minute changed her mind. Apparently this young woman was considered a potential math genius; so much so that several universities were offering her scholarships to continue her math education within their hallowed halls. However she was choosing to decline because many of her friends had an ailment of myopic vision, pointing out to her that she was an unfortunate geek, destined to be socially ostracized. This personal, social pressure was sufficient to give her pause in the choice of the direction her life would take. My acquaintance wanted me to know that after seeing the play her daughter was deeply affected, and finally decided to move forward with math, that she loved, as her major.
These are two personal examples of the power and influence of theatre. And when it happens you feel awestruck that you can be so affected as well as feeling graced by the Gods. How does this magic happen? How is it possible that this historical tradition of sitting in the dark for an experience of entertainment can transmute itself into ritual that touches the soul or inspiration that fortifies us to make life changing decisions? Such an enactment requires arduous commitment and talent of course, and perhaps a blessing of luck from the muses. And when this magic happens it can be for various reasons. But the most vital and significant reason is because it inhabits and animates the present space with its organic living. This aliveness may present itself in various forms, costumes and genres, yet underlying and permeating all of them is the fresh immediacy of presence, the impenetrability of life itself, in front of you, speaking, embodied in the flesh. This immediacy is discerned and felt by the body that we inhabit as well as the mind with which we think. This immediacy invokes and directs our attention and engagement with the suddenness of its existence, like an unexpected flame illuminating a darkened room. Indeed this analogy of flame seems most apt. For a flame can ignite and illumine. It allows us to see what was previously in shadows, perhaps from fear or denial. And from that illumination greater clarity ensues, along with something inside of us that is encouraged to open from its warmth.
When we open there are new perspectives, possibilities, fresh options that were previously unseen. And isn’t that part of the very reason for even exploring the human condition? To discover new territory that allows our living to flourish? Even if it means that very flourishing sometimes requires being disrupted? The chaotic disequilibrium that disruption evokes can be fodder for fresh creativity to emerge. This is the ultimate gift that live theatre has to offer. And when we receive it there is some part of us that recognizes the fragile dance of our personal and human lineage in coexistence with our becoming.
For centuries storytelling and live theatre has contemplated the dynamic, shifting, challenging and evolving relationship between human and animal, human and human, human and society, human and Earth, and even human and the immeasurable domain of the Universe itself. And through the ages theatre itself has also shifted, altered and evolved. The constancy and power within its offerings is the simple and profound immediacy of its living presence. And it is through this presence that the magic of theatre weaves its spell.
Live theatre has the capacity to enlarge our awareness and engagement with these concerns through the nature and potential of its fundamental visceral impact. Where will we journey as individuals? As a community? As a species? How shall we get there? Will we continue to explore the possibilities within the story form of theatre and thus contribute to its capacity to awaken and arouse? Will we continue to foster the flame and light that living theatre can emit for the burgeoning of our becoming through its divergent and creative expressions? The flame and immediacy of living theatre is indeed a catalyst that can activate and ‘journey us’ into a space containing provocative and challenging terrain. Sometimes the catalytic power of certain terrains contain forces which might seem threatening. We need theatre’s flame to illuminate, at whatever capacity, the surrounding darkness that both threatens and is part of the human condition. And the irony is that within the darkness we dream. The living presence of theatre allows us to consciously evoke the dream, through the immediacy of its ritual. It can shift consciousness to consider options for the choices we make in our everyday lives of how we choose to engage with ourselves, others, family, community and social issues, political structures and religious ideologies. And each choice, each action, has the potential to awaken us to live the truth and power of our story. And when enough of us do that with integrity, the community of our living will thrive.
As long as humans continue to search for and create meaning in the process of existence, the light emitted from the fresh immediacy of theatre, whether ember, bonfire, or explosive fireworks, will be offered to guide, illuminate and inspire our way. Let us keep the flame alive.