I started teaching my first class today, which is a new thing for me. The last time I was in a classroom setting in front of students was back in my freshman year at FHU, before I had officially declared theatre as my major, for a couple days of "student observation” as part of the education program. After that brief and miserable experience, I vowed never to step in front of a group of pre-adults in a classroom setting ever again. Obviously, thats a vow that had to be amended, as today I found myself in front of 12 kids aged anywhere from 9 to 17 as part of Germantown Community Theatre’s homeschool theatre class on Stagecraft that I had been asked to teach, in addition to my Technical Director duties, over the course of the next 12 Wednesdays. Today, as part of our introductions, I asked my class “Why do you like to do theatre?”. I was expecting the usual answers; “Because its fun!”, “For the applause!”, “To be famous!”. However one girl had a very insightful answer. She spoke up and said “I do theatre because it gives me another perspective. It lets me look at a situation from inside someone else’s shoes, and that's a good thing.”
Talk about truth from the mouth of babes. If these kids take away anything from the class today, its exactly that. Don’t get me wrong, theatre IS fun, and the applause is great, and you might get famous (maybe), but to me thats not the point. That’s not why theatre is important.
Theatre is important because it allows us to see things a different way, both as artists creating and as audience members participating. Unlike other visual art forms theatre is almost impossible to do alone and from a singular perspective. It requires deep collaboration across multiple disciplines, disciplines that are continually expanding and evolving as we progress socially and technologically. Each artist who is involved in the concept and creation process brings their own unique perspective to the script and to the production. The director, of course, will try to shepherd that process in a particular direction but only because he has been entrusted with the task of seeing the complete picture. That shared perspective that the creative team possesses is for each of them both new and familiar. It is familiar because they have had a part in its creation, and it is new because their perspective is being blended with all these other perspectives creating something completely unique.
For the performers this is especially true. They are the ones who are inhabiting the world of the play, breathing life into the characters, learning how and why characters react to a given situation. They act as the audience's guides through that world, offering us one or multiple different perspectives on a given situation. We relate to the characters as an audience because our life experience may be similar in some sense; we might have lived through events similar to what is going on, or worked in jobs similar to what the characters do or even come from the same background as the characters. Or sometimes we relate, but it's because we're the bad guys in this story. We're the antagonists, we're the ones who cause the conflict. To me that is one of theaters most illuminating abilities. Showing us our faults and our problems, spurring us on to do better and change.
Theatre isn't alone in this ability; other art forms share it to an extent. It's not much different than a movie or a TV show except in two very specific ways. Firstly, the director can't control what we as an audience are looking at the whole time. In film, the director can focus on one object, one person and their perspective and never show you a competing perspective. Theatre however lets you look wherever you want, at whatever characters you want to. The director and the designers can coax you towards looking at a certain point on stage by using lights and staging, but you don't have to look there. You don't have to take that point of view. Secondly, there is no screen between the action in the play and the audience. There is nothing to protect you from what is being expressed on stage. You can't turn down the volume, you can't change the channels. You can certainly walk out, but that's like walking away from someone in the middle of a conversation; it's rude and you don't get the whole story.
Unfortunately, the idea that theatre should challenge our beliefs, our practices and our way of life are not universally shared, especially by this who see theatre purely as a means of entertainment, as a way to escape the rawness of reality. Theatre should be entertaining, I'm not saying that it shouldn't be (I'd be out of a job if I said it shouldn't be!), but entertainment isn't everything. Some of the most powerful moments, and some of the best performances I've seen on stage haven't been through productions that I would necessarily class as entertaining in the happy-clappy sense. Blackbird, Killing Alan, Macbeth, Long Days Journey Into Night, these are all amazing plays that teach us truths and expose us to some very uncomfortable realities. I wouldn't say these were entertaining in the way that Wicked or Rock of Ages is entertaining, but they are just as vital and definitely more necessary. Theatre shouldn't just be an escapists dreamworld filled with fluffy musicals, pithy comedy and droll drama. Theatre gives us the tools to show how the world really is, and what our world can be.
Theatre can give us hope. In a world where Palestinian children are obliterated by bombs that our dollars paid for, where black men are gunned down by people that we trusted to protect all of us equally, and where our elected representatives would rather sit on their hands than do anything to change our broken way of life, we have a duty to show not only that things can be better, but that we can make it so.
I hope this year to be continually challenged again by what I see on the Memphis stages. I hope to be delighted. I hope to be horrified. I hope to be amused. I hope to be offended. Above all, I hope to see our community strengthened.
-- J David Galloway ('07) currently serves as the Technical Director for Germantown Community Theatre in west Tennessee.