How Theatre Can Change the World

I wasn’t always a theatre kid. I wanted to be a singer more than anything, the next Debbie Gibson (if you remember who that is). But my mom took me to see Les Miserables and Cats when I was in middle school and my whole life changed. I never realized you could sing AND act! In high school, I did my first school musical (A Chorus Line, if you can believe it, in East Tennessee) and I was hooked. I loved everything about the theatre. The performance, the camaraderie, even the rehearsals were fun.

When I started college, my plan was to take a couple of years at the local college, get my core out of the way, and transfer to a bigger school to study musical theatre (I wanted to attend the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music). But in the spring of that first year, I auditioned for and won a role in Equus, and all my plans changed. Rehearsing Equus was full of the same camaraderie I found in musical theatre, but it was so much more. We were exploring emotions and ideas, something you rarely have time to do in a musical. I fell in love with theatre and the ins and outs of creating a character and making them come to life on stage.

I was always good at music. Singing came easy to me and, with the exception of music theory, I sailed through my music courses with flying colors. But theatre was different. It was challenging. It still came fairly easily to me, but it was subjective. There was rarely a correct answer, it was up to the actor (or director) to make an interesting and. sometimes unexpected, choice. So many other disciplines were a part of theatre: psychology, philosophy, history, aesthetics. It was a mixed bag of everything I found intriguing.

After a couple of years of college, I ended up leaving school, for several reasons. I was working in TV news at the time and it was difficult to do both, so I chose the paying gig. And my favorite acting teacher was passed over for a promotion and took another position at another school. I wasn’t really impressed with the rest of the theatre faculty at the time, so I left too. Plus, a friend of a friend was starting a local theatre company, and I joined their children’s theatre division. I no longer wanted to study musical theatre so my college plans were on hold.

The theatre company quickly became my home. I worked with their children’s theatre for a couple of years, but I also became an administrative assistant, and later, the director of marketing. It was a communal situation, too, so I moved in with my fellow thespians and we lived and breathed theatre 24/7. We rehearsed shows all day, we read Shakespeare into the the wee hours of the morning, and we studied the greats, like Stanislavski and Uta Hagan.

I truly believed at the time that theatre was the answer to all the world’s ills. Plays are a world into another person’s life, a study in empathy, and an eye-opening peek into ideas you may never have confronted before. A good play can take you through the full range of emotions and make you better for it on the other side. But can theatre can change the world?

9/11 happened during my stint at the theatre. The biggest tragedy of my lifetime happened when we were in rehearsals for Macbeth. And there was nothing we could do except sit in front of the television and watch it unfold. I mean, I guess we could have invited the terrorists to see our play, but that seemed unlikely. What could theatre do in the midst of such an event? The answer was “everything.”

After 9/11, countless books, films, and theatrical works were made in response, and for good reason. Art helps us reflect, explore, and understand tragedies in a way that nothing else can. Shakespeare literally wrote the book on tragedy, and what is so interesting about watching or studying works like MacBeth or Hamlet is that you are transported inside the world of the tragedy. You can see it coming, or at the very least, you are pulled into the experience when it happens. Music can also help us in times of tragedy. Composer Leonard Bernstein, famous for West Side Story among others, famously said after the assassination of JFK, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

I still believe in the idea of theatre changing the world, although maybe I’m a bit more cynical now. The world around me looks extremely bleak. But in times of trouble we must create. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist says, “Creativity is the power to act,” and to act is to change the world.

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