How We Live & Dream: Theatre in a Time of Social Distancing

For the past five weeks, I’ve been directing a fantastic cast in a set of four short plays by Tennessee Williams at the Blue Slipper Theatre in Livingston, Montana. Livingston is a small, mountain town of railroad workers and writers, ranchers and artists, fly fishers and film artists, former cult members and former hippies—most people being some combination of a few of these. The Blue Slipper, a community theatre since 1964, is housed in a limestone block building that originally was home to the Livingston Post, the town’s oldest newspaper that used to publish, among cattle and railroad news, the drunken exploits of Calamity Jane whose frequent visits to local saloons usually ended with a night in the County jail. In other words, I do theatre in a town whose colorful present is matched by its colorful past.

The production was coming together beautifully. The actors were finding the truth of their characters, the worlds so dazzlingly imagined by Williams were coming alive before us, the set was nearly finished, our publicity campaign was in full swing and advance sales were strong. And then everything changed.

One week before opening night, we made the decision to postpone our production due to concerns of the spread of coronavirus. The governor had just declared a state of emergency, and large gatherings were being advised against, though no specific bans or closures were being required … yet. But the board president and I discussed the options, and we realized we couldn’t in good conscience ask people to gather together and increase the chances for an outbreak. As is typical with the community theatres I’ve worked with, a majority of our audience is of the age most at risk.

I made the announcement to the cast and crew at what would have been our first tech rehearsal. Instead of working through a cue-to-cue, enjoying a dinner break together at the Mint Bar & Grill and then having the magic moment of seeing these fine plays unfold under lights, with sound effects and music, for the first time—instead, we sat in the house, each cast member spontaneously sitting several seats from the other, and talked about our options. How long would we need to postpose? How could we fit a delayed production into the rest of the scheduled season? How could we keep the work we’ve done, and keep the energy and creative spark from flickering out?

Disappointment filled the room, but more than that, an acknowledgement of the gravity of this decision. We, as members of a community as well as guides, storytellers and truth-seekers for this community, had an obligation to protect and inform.

For me, the greatest benefit of live theatre is its ability to bring us together. Seeing and portraying the lives of others through our own experience—getting into the bodies and minds and souls of others—gives us a great gift of empathy. Not just compassion for the “Other,” but the realization that there is no “other,” we are all one.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe says, “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.”

I believe our job as theatre artists is to prove Marlowe wrong. By doing the work, with passion and honesty, by making ourselves vulnerable, by giving our attention generously, we can touch on the truth and essence of another’s existence. We don’t try to pretend to be someone else. We don’t try to actually become someone else. We seek to become ourselves, fully and completely, within the circumstances of someone else’s truth. We live truthfully, and then we share this truth with an audience.

The art of theatre happens specifically in the sharing of the true moments we create. The art isn’t happening on the stage, it’s happening in the connection between the actors and the audience. The magic of creation lives in the back and forth communication that occurs, in the this is what truth feels like / yes, I feel it / yes, I feel that you feel it. Without the sharing, there is no theatre. It is our coming together, sharing and learning empathy, that makes this art form what it is.

So, it is painfully ironic that the best way we can all help each other right now—to insure the safety and health of our cast, crew, audience and their families—is to choose to not be together, to do the opposite of what our instinct for community tells us. This may feel like we are giving in to the fatalistic pessimism of Marlowe: we really are alone.

We toyed with the idea of filming the show and broadcasting it to our audience through any of the means now so readily available. But this isn’t theatre. There would be no sharing, no back-and-forth communication. I’ve seen many companies doing this, and I’m not criticizing the idea. It’s a fine way to put a representation of their work out to the public, it may be powerful and beautiful and entertaining and moving, but it’s not theatre. It may be highly artistic and theatrical, not it’s not the art of theatre.

Humans coming together, sharing the truth of a moment, in the moment—experiencing the energy and magic as it is happening, without any intermediary of time or technology—that’s theatre. So how can we continue as theatre artists in the midst of a crisis that makes theatre impossible?

In Stephen Hero, the manuscript eventually rewritten as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce writes, “Every moment of inspiration must be paid for in advance.” This line has become a sort of motto for every production I direct. It’s a guidepost to remind us of the what and why of our work. If we want the magic of being in the Moment, “living truthfully” (as William Esper puts it[1]), we must prepare. We must pay in advance for that inspiration.

Pausing our performance doesn’t mean we cease to be artists, it means we use this opportunity to become better prepared for the performances we will eventually return to. Bashō’s great dictum, “Master technique, then forget it” should be written on the walls of every rehearsal space. Too many of us have been guilty of skipping the first part, or worse, assuming we’ve already done it. But without mastering our technique, we can’t forget it, we can’t live truthfully in the moment, we can’t authentically share the “subtle and penetrating essence” of existence. This period of social distancing is a time to turn inward.

To portray humanity, we must first know what it means to be human. Fortunately, each of us has the unique specimen of ourselves to study. We can discover how our character reacts to something because we can pay attention to how we react to it, even if the event is imaginary. This is what Meisner is getting at when he says, “The truth of ourselves is the root of our acting.”[2] During these days of uncertainty and isolation, we as theatre artists should keep working, keep studying, keep exploring, keep paying up front for a future inspiration, so that when this crisis has passed, we will be all the more prepared to share our work, to create a true moment of communication and communion.

We will be ready to come back together, to gather in the magic and holy space of a theatre, and to live and dream—as one.

In the meantime, broadcasting recorded productions, live-streaming plays or other performances, teleconferencing, hosting online discussion forums, etc. are all great ways to keep in touch with our audiences and with each other. These tools will prove incredibly useful in the coming weeks or months, but they are not a replacement for theatre. We must not confuse a stand-in for theatre with the art of theatre itself. If we allow ourselves to become convinced that there is no difference, or that the difference is merely a technicality, we will lose the one thing that makes theatre the distinctive artform that it is: direct, face-to-face and heart-to-heart, human connection. And losing that would be as great and lasting of a tragedy as this virus is proving to be.

1. “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Esper, William. The Actor’s Art and Craft. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.
2. Meisner, Sanford. Sanford Meisner On Acting. New York: Vintage, 1987.

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Riding w/ Strangers #3: Another Child Soldier

It was my second cross-country train ride. First a section of the “Blue Water” route from Flint, Michigan to Chicago. From Chicago, it’s the jingoistically named “Empire Builder,” cutting through the lands of the Ojibwa, Lakota, Blackfeet and Salish. The name Empire Builder celebrates an empire built on the bones of these people and countless others.

Despite the name, the route is fantastic: crossing the wide-open desolate beauty of North Dakota and Eastern Montana along the Hi-Line, creeping ever closer to the Rockies and Glacier National Park. There is some deep and hidden part of ourselves that is woken, electrified, by an endless vista of prairie grasses undulating across the landscape like a soft sea. It could be a genetic memory to the African savannah of our hominid ancestors, or even further back to the mother waters from which we emerged. To watch it’s passing, hour after hour, from the window of a train is at once mesmerizing and exhilarating. A tonic for the disease of city life.

Somewhere in North Dakota, maybe Minot or Stanley, the train stopped to pick up a single passenger. From my window, I saw the scene that’s been repeated a million times in this country: Mom and Dad at the side of their pickup truck, their son, pulling his duffle from the truck bed, his uniform carefully ironed, his hair freshly cut. There’s a long hug from Mom, until the son finally breaks free. There’s an awkward attempt at a hug, floundering into a handshake, from Dad. The child soldier climbs on board. Mom and Dad return to their truck – the day’s chores still need to be done, and there will be less help around the farm for some time, perhaps (they know) forever.

The newly minted soldier makes his way down the aisle and slumps into a seat a few rows up from mine. His belief in the justice of his cause fights to mask his fear. When I was young, I felt anger toward people in uniform – for me they represented the corrupt government and corporate powers that created them. But eventually, I realized that they are not representatives of the corruption, but are victims of it. When I see a soldier now I feel pity. Many are victims of a poverty draft, all are victims of the great Lie: that they are fighting for some ideal rather than corporate profits.

This was in 2003 or 2004. A war based on a lie was being played out on the other side of the world. A war for oil, for Halliburton’s bottom line, for George Bush’s need to look tough. The lie was two-fold: that Iraq had a connection to the attacks of 9/11, and that they were harboring weapons of mass destruction. Of course, both claims were overwhelmingly proved untrue (although 80% of Fox News viewers continued to believe one or both of these claims).

Mom and Dad returned to the farm, proud of their son. Believing in the righteousness of this cause. Another family made victim to the propaganda of American media; victim of the lies of The White House; victims of the flag-waving and disingenuous use of words like “freedom,” “patriotism,” “service.” The building of the empire continually needs new bones for its great project.

[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]

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Dead Elephant

Most of the carcass is off-camera
but the fake billionaire’s half-wit son smiles
holding up the severed tail & brandishing
a clean knife, too small to do the job

Clearly someone stands beyond the frame
bloody, sweat-soaked & bathed in grief
feeding his family with the kind of job
white people have offered black people

for 400 years, give or take
an elephant’s lifetime, the speed of a bullet.
On the back of the photo, he writes,
“Are you proud of me yet, Daddy?”

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