This is in response to today’s Daily Post, entitled “Invitation.”
If you go to the theatre, turn on a movie, stand in front of a work of art, switch on the radio–do not let me entertain you. If you do, you are being tricked, you are missing the point, you are closing off a part of you due to fear, misunderstanding, the anxiety of truly looking at yourself. Each piece of art–from the loud, frivolous musical to the subtle, abstract painting–evokes something in you that wasn’t there before, it creates. It creates joy, nostalgia, anger, confusion, wonder, and perhaps even inspiration to change. And whether the art pleases or angers you, it makes no difference. What matters is that you went from feeling nothing–from moving along in a neutral day, from following the rhythm of the world, to distracting yourself by your own inner world—to stopping, to looking at the mirror that art provides for one moment, and challenging yourself to listen, to look.
With all the confusing anger around Meryl Streep’s speech and Hamilton providing a “safe space” and other misrepresentations of my field, I see the opportunity not to quiet these incorrect views of art, but to challenge them. If these people, the ones who believe that art and artists are literally only meant to delight them, to make them feel more comfortable in their already comfortable states, well then I say, great! I dare to you come to something truly challenging and try to leave simply, “entertained.” I dare you to listen to an artist’s “unwelcome” opinion and walk around with it for one day before responding.
I keep reading, “We go to see theatre for an escape, do your job.” But I ask you, if you only see art as an escape, what are you escaping? Even asking yourself that question means that art has proved your thesis as incorrect.
A Place to Listen
The internet has provided a place to shout your opinions from the rooftops (as I do now), to read the bits and pieces that please you, and either move on, or to immediately voice your opinion right back. In the theater, in a museum, even at the movies, we are given the rare gift of pause. Here is an idea being presented, and here you are to receive it. Through performance, we are taught to wait, not to immediately respond. Of course you are welcome to walk out if you are being pushed past your comfort level. But thanks to social norms, quite often, you don’t. You spent money on this, you made the decision to challenge yourself, perhaps without realizing it. And as you sit there, you experience the story, whether it makes you angry, annoyed, bored, or elated. A message is sent and you are there to silently receive. If you’ve ever wondered if people are immediately effected by the power of live performance, go hang out by the line of the woman’s bathroom during a play. There may be grumbles of disgust, or nods of approval, but rarely is that line silent. And yet we walked into the theatre that night only existing in our solitary worlds.
After we finish our formal education, it’s rare that we are forced to sit and listen without being paid to do so. As kids, we are told to be respectful, to listen, to reflect. But the moment graduation arrives, a large percentage of people feel they’ve put in their time of self-analysis and quickly find a place that comforts and supports their cozy, complacent beliefs. This is where arts steps in.
Proof of Magic
When I was a kid in theatre, I spent hundreds of hours, thousands even, sitting cross legged on the dusty floor of a black box theatre, surrounded by the soft curtains of the wings. Even as 10-hour tech rehearsals trudged on, my 8-year-old self knew I was witnessing something magical. And as a child, all I wanted was to believe that magic truly existed. The adults around me were often unpaid, local actors, spending time away from their homes, from their televisions and couches, to stand on ladders and precariously focus a light until it correctly shone just perfectly on someone else’s face. They wracked their brains to memorize the beautiful words of a playwright while sitting in the corner, speaking to themselves over and over and over again. They conquered their anxieties and fears of judgement right before my young eyes every time they stepped out on stage. And all the while, I knew these people–these prior strangers–were my family. What did I do to deserve their protection? I bought into the magic, I became someone else each night alongside them in order to speak to a room of onlooking people, people who came to be changed.
If you are someone who has never been to theatre, or someone who only attends theatre to be entertained, I challenge you go to again, soon. And as the lights begin to dim just before the show starts, I want you to stare up at one of the stage lights as it fades out and then close your eyes. This brief moment of silence, the smell of dust and paint and people around you, that breath just before the room shifts from a place of candy wrappers and chatter to an alternate reality, that is where the magic lives, that is when we choose to pretend–not just the actors, but everyone in the room. We stop grasping on to our own reality, both privately in the dark and together as an audience and actors. As a kid, that was my proof of magic.
We Are Watching
A coworker recently asked me if I truly believed acting could be taught. “Of course!” I said. But I forget that so many people have no idea what we do as actors in addition to speaking loud and not bumping into the furniture (which are harder than you would think, seriously, go give it a try). But most importantly, we are trained to be mirrors to the world. I am taught to watch the way you eat your cereal, the way you speak to your dog when walking in the park, the way you whistle to yourself when you top up you subway card. I am taught to feel what you feel when you lose a loved one, when you are given exciting news, when you get lost, angry, frustrated. I am not taught to imitate, I am taught to do. I am taught to maintain a level of reality to get myself from point A to point B, to speak loudly and clearly, all the while also existing in a different space and time. And most importantly, I am taught to listen to the other people on stage. Because you, as audience members, can tell when I am not truly listening, when I am imitating, and not doing. We, as artists, respect you as smart, intuitive audience members, ready to call us on our BS. So yes, this art is trainable, it must be trained, and it takes years of frustration and joy, and a deep, thrilling love of the work itself.
So no, do not let me entertain you, that is not what I am trained for. I am trained to see you and give you a glimpse into a your own self, perhaps a piece that was too difficult to look at on your own. I am there to stand with you as you process this realization, to give you a space to feel you are truly connecting with a room full of complete strangers, to be a part of something out of your control, something larger than yourself–larger than your meticulously planned day, larger than your to-do list.
If I am simply your entertainer, then you are truly missing out.