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Filtering by Category: Theatre

I’m a Recovering Church Dramatist

Paul Luikart

26 Luikart Photo I’m a recovering church dramatist. Back in the day, I worked with a performance team. We wrote sketches and performed them during Sunday services. We had a lot of fun and we were, dare I brag, pretty funny. This was in Chicago where improv is king. We'd craft scripted sketches out of improvised scenes we made up related to the pastors’ sermon topics. It was fairly organic at first and, for the most part, we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted. As long as we didn’t swear or anything.

I was proud of what we created back then, but as I reflect on those sketches now, there’s a bit of a dark, nagging undertone that I’m not sure I noticed at the time. It’s not that what we did was bad, but it never could have stood alone. What we produced was inextricably linked to those sermons, subserviently linked in fact, and in the big picture, subserviently linked to the evangelical purposes of either a) saving souls or b) edifying saved souls. Art, if you can call what we did art, was a serf to the vassal of the modern evangelical church.

A be-all-end-all definition of art is difficult to come across, but one thing I'm certain of is that art is not a slave. Roping art to a cause of some kind is a misuse of it, one that demonstrates a core misunderstanding of the stuff. But stating what art isn’t begs the question, "What is it?" Ha. You might just as well ask, "Who is God?" especially if you're up for some maddening non-answers. There are some pat answers—"Art is human expression," "God is love"—that aren't necessarily false. It's just that they can only ever be partially true.

Art is inherently mysterious. I think the typical human response to the grandly mysterious (like art, like God) is a knee-jerk, semi-conscious attempt at appropriation. If we can’t fully describe something, we yank it from its own empire and compress it to grasp-able suburban terms, not realizing that as we compress it, we shear it of its essence, the thing that makes the thing the thing. Art is no longer art, but propaganda, and propaganda harangues with one of two choices: Are you with us or are you against us? Your life teeters on your answer. Answer now.

Art, like God, permits an infinite number of responses to itself. It piques curiosity, provokes introspection, picks at our core values, and invites us to return over and over again. Those who patronize the arts correctly remove their crowns and listen. Those who patronize incorrectly first seek themselves in the painting, the novel, the symphony, and give up on art all together when, in fact, they find themselves.

The leadership at my church back then eventually chopped our sketches from the services permanently. I never knew why exactly. We didn’t swear, not even once. Probably because first they made us quit writing our own stuff and use Willow Creek Community Church’s pre-written stuff. But whatever the reason, it was for the best. Though we were ultimately mistreating art, it never shunned us. Art, like God, was kind to us.

The Universe Unending

William Coleman

 magritte-634568 The week was thick with doubt; I couldn’t see past my nose. On Sunday, I’d begin a two-night run as Cyrano de Bergerac within a majestic, historic theatre, upon a stage framed by a gilded proscenium, before an audience seated upon velvet chairs beneath a central dome of stained glass. What justice could I possibly do (I could not stop thinking) to the grandeur of that play’s great space—the one built when my city was young, and the one Rostand made of words?

And so, on Thursday, I found myself printing a dozen copies of Thomas Hardy’s “In a Museum,” and setting the tiny stack in motion, hand to hand, counter-clockwise, around my classroom’s oaken table. “Listen to this,” I said to my students, and to me.

 I

Here's the mould of a musical bird long passed from light, Which over the earth before man came was winging; There's a contralto voice I heard last night, That lodges with me still in its sweet singing.

II

Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard, In the full-fuged song of the universe unending.

As I read, the waves of Hardy’s words, a century after they found lodging in his page, fledged into the room, pushing and pulling air, winging their way toward the heat they would become. Such a dream is Time. And when we spoke of resonance, of memory’s essential mystery (fossil-moulds of time we carry unseen until recollection breathes them into being and their life is brought to ours)—when we spoke of the unending blending that makes us whole, our words’ wakes merged the space between us, and then went on, beyond our knowing.

We go on, I hear Beckett’s speaker of The Unnamable say from somewhere I cannot name, for he never said it quite that way. Was he even speaking at all, I wonder, that voice who came to feel composed solely of words that came before it? “Is it possible certain things change on their passage through me?” he wonders. Certainty; doubt: the space between, a dream.

My sophomores adore Rostand’s play. Each year, when we finish reading it aloud, half are actually in tears, half are outraged. “I hate the ending!” they shout to one another before shouting at me. And then: “Can we read it again?”

I know something of what passes through them as they read. At seventeen, awkward, gangly, with a mother dead and a grieving, distant father, with pages of poetry and albums of songs for company, I read of a man who disappeared into words, and of a beautiful woman waiting for him there. It sustained me for a time.

That Thursday in the week of my uncertainty—those final days before Rostand’s words would have to make their passage through my consciousness and history toward those of family and friends and strangers, so many strangers—I needed to keep going. And so I entered that tiny museum of Hardy’s finding: that vast space where ancient breath is held and breathes anew, given our breath. Every poem worth its salt is such a space. Every play. Every life, real or imagined. The least we can do is go on.

(Painting by Magritte)

Advent and Godot (Part Two: Delivering The Comedy)

Tom Sturch

Untitled2

I will anoint them with oil to give them gladness instead of sorrow. ~ Isaiah 61:3

 With bleakness as its backdrop, the absurdity of Waiting For Godot exists in its dialog riddled with non sequitur and its circular structure where almost nothing changes though time appears to pass. Those are the fixed elements. But as with any production the pathos, or meaning, has to be communicated through the performances of the actors. And while actors do not manifest meaning, they are nevertheless its agents and must be strong enough in character to deliver the play's potential.

Beckett was famous for not saying what Godot was about. The New Yorker printed two of his letters in response to producers' queries you can read here (if you have a NY account). By not doing so, he created a space for libraries of commentary on the play that might never have been ventured if he'd said anything definitive. It allows its mysterious questions to be newly engaged with each viewing.

But actors need a little more help.

Director Stephanie Courtney: “Mostly I invoke the removal of the observer in my student's pretty little heads. They are in love with observation—and judgment—rather than being in love with action. They want to be the object and the observer.”

Director David Fox: “In working with actors, I do try to be specific with what they're playing and why. Actors need some concrete answers to questions. Ambiguity, however, is part of the Beckett experience, so telling an audience what the play is ‘about’ is far less important to me than saturating them with a deeply felt experience. Perfectly appropriate for spectators to emerge from Beckett with more questions than answers.”

And then, there's the comedy. Once, in a kind of type-casting for the Theater of the Absurd, Steve Martin and Robin Williams starred together in a production of Waiting For Godot. Martin, who trained in theater and philosophy in his earlier years, sagely said, “The language of the play takes care of itself. The structure of the play takes care of itself. But the comedy must be delivered.”

Comedy is the stealth cloak. It is the spoonful of sugar. And sometimes it is the message, all by itself. David Misch (his bio is a gut buster) was a writer for Mork and Mindy and many other projects. In his book Funny: The Book is a chapter titled “Comedy vs. The Universe:

If you don't think the bleakness of life can be funny, talk to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. (Beckett got the name Godot from a Keaton movie). Or Laurel and Hardy—actor Michael McKean points out that all their films are about them failing: “We know they're doomed, and that's why they're we're laughing.”

Are we cruel to laugh? No. We relive, and relieve, the delightful horror, the agonizing hilarity of being in a similar fix.

It's Advent. For Christians, it is the time between God's first and second coming during which He is withholding judgment and watching the play. In Waiting For Godot, Godot never comes. Is this the ultimate joke? Is it the exclamation point on a life sentence of misery? Or is it something else—a clue to life staged in the only way we could see it—life as a kind of tragic drama replete with absurdity in which our part is to deliver the comedy?

Whether one's worldview affirms the existentialism of Godot or rejects it from rationalism, it is impossible to ignore the richness portrayed in lives of little means. The players make something practiced of the dust. A craft that arrives on its own terms as laughter through tears.

Merry Christmas.

Advent and Godot (Part One: Isolation)

Tom Sturch

Untitled

He seems to say that only... amid Gods paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached... Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void. ~ Richard Ellman

A family viewing of Waiting For Godot is not a traditional fixture of Advent, but its careful observation may offer a light to examine our modern traditions for the season in both critical and affirming ways. I invite you to watch this version of the play recommended to me by Stephanie Courtney, a theater director in Dublin, Ireland, for its fidelity to authentic Irish humor.

A native of Ireland, author Samuel Beckett lived during the early 20th century and wrote Waiting For Godot in mid-career. In the course of his early life, Beckett saw the emergence of the Irish Republic, became a scholar, and served in World War II. His writing was often charged with the particular misery of common people subject to the futility of European upheaval. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 “for his writing, in which—in new forms for the novel and drama—the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”

Several people cautioned me as I set out to write about Godot, especially on maintaining a strict objectivity and to try to avoid judging the play from a particular worldview. This was hard. Ms. Courtney helped by giving Godot an essentially Irish context. “I don't think Americans are able to understand futility the way the Europeans can,” she says. “When I walk to work, I travel through a city more than 1,000 years old. I walk along a street that was cobbled before the Vikings invaded Dublin—and I work in a theater built in 1662. Those stones will be walked on for another thousand years after I'm dead. I'm merely passing through and that comes across in my experience of the people here, too. There is less pressure here to leave a mark. You make the most of your time and then you die.”

The set of Godot is minimal and desolate. As with several of Beckett's plays, it is space, sound, bodies and movement. Here are the first lines as Beckett writes:

A country road. A tree.

Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. 

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON:

(giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR:

(advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON:

Am I?

Some of the play's biggest themes are set in those few words. Over its course there is night and day and very little changes. The men are friends of fifty years and speak a language so particular to them that the whole of the play sounds like nonsense. They flit from complaint to levity in a blink and move easily between imagined and real worlds. Critics of the day referred to Godot (as well as other plays in the genre) as Theater of the Absurd due largely to the departure from the realist forms. But the absurdity is like a Petri dish that allows the questions of Beckett's isolated culture to grow.

As the play progresses, a lightness emerges in the bleakness. It is located in the only place it can be—in the complex relationship of the characters and their conundrum. David Fox is a professor and theater director at Wheaton College. He says Beckett's genius lies in his marriage of vaudeville and existentialism. “Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but the combination creates all of the dynamic contrasts [in the play], and presents life as the tragicomic experience we all love and fear. The clowning element infuses his work with tremendous humanity.”

Last Saturday I interviewed a friend with expertise in Heidegger's concept of being as dasein, or, “being in the world”, that I thought would be helpful in articulating what I thought I saw in Godot. I wanted to be sure I understood the nuance of “concern” for the world extant in the term. We grabbed an outdoor table at a local watering hole in an eclectic part of town. It's a convivial place on a busy street. A man I'd characterize as homeless took the table next to ours. He talked freely to everyone and himself. His words were mostly unintelligible and over-dramatized but the subjects of his conversations seemed parroted from media talking points as exhibited in his own circumstances. He'd have sounded just like us, with better clothes and without the alcoholic slur. As he was, he was evidenced as a fool or ignored. Estragon's line was ringing in my ear like a taunt.

Great theater has a winsome way of making its point with a light hand and, if given space, never runs short on commentary. It makes a place to befriend the darkest places of humanity and allows for light that shines on the real cost of beauty. If we can just withhold the easy judgments. Perhaps that is a tradition worth making.

Gender Bending in Shakespeare’s“Twelfe Night, or What You Will”

John Hodges

Richard III Belasco Theatre Joseph Timms Mark Rylance

Broadway’s all-male production of Shakespeare’s comedy of gender confusion closes in February.  One critic says, the “. . . performance brings to funny and delicious life the play’s message of the power of love and desire to transcend the limitations of gender.”  Wait, what?  Is that what Shakespeare’s point was? 

It is simply the Bard’s genius to create a love triangle that serves as a love circle.  Viola loves the Duke, the Duke, Olivia, but Olivia can close the circle and love Viola because Viola appears in the guise of a man, Cessario.  This makes for some wonderful comedy onstage and off, that is, among the critics.

It is popular now in universities to think in “politically correct” terms about classics.  A feminist perspective (that women have no significant power unless it is through a man) finds traction in this play as Viola is powerless and insignificant until she takes up the livery of a man.  Olivia lends support as an empowered woman, head of her household, who scorns the Duke’s proposals and resists the attempts by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio to tame her to their wishes.  With her newfound freedom of choice, however, she pursues Cessario, not knowing that Cessario is really the girl Viola, and this aspect of the plot lends credence to a popular homosexual perspective, that men and women have latent erotic tendencies toward their own genders.  To further this notion, there are  the sparks of attraction the Duke seems to feel toward Cessario (again not knowing she is a girl), and the love of Antonio proclaims for Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) without any mistaken identity.

However, while Viola may gain some power and position when she is taken for a man, her decision to dress and act like a man was for security not power. She thought it was dangerous for a woman to go around in an unknown territory alone, a problem that is timeless.  While she IS a man, pining for the Duke and avoiding Olivia’s advances, she wishes she were NOT a man, and we know that she won’t be satisfied until she can again safely appear in public as a woman.

Sad is an “empowerment” that grants security but makes love impossible.  The homosexual argument falls apart by simply recalling the biblical distinctions between erotic love and brotherly love.  Olivia’s attraction to Viola is humorous only when it is taken as misguided eros, and the Duke’s attraction to Cessario is likewise funny when it is seen as misguided philia.  If either had known what both Viola and the audience know, these pursuits would end.  Additionally, the love of Antonio for Sebastian is proper philia (as is that of Jonathan and David in the bible) and, if mistaken for eros, spoils the happy ending we want for Olivia with Sebastian.

These feminist and homosexual interpretations are not only invalid (in that they fail to account for the play as a play), but they turn out to oppose the clarity of the biblical categories of love and gender which are the very things that make the play funny.  The comedy in Twelfe Night is lost on those who refuse to take such categories seriously.  Just another example of how political correctness has no sense of humor, and, if taken seriously, tends to rob the rest of us of ours.