How Theatre Saved My Life | Blue Stool #31


(upbeat music) Blue Stool 31. Theatre saved my life. It taught me how to breathe and it taught me how to live. When I talk about theatre, I’m not talking about space, proscenium stage, thrust stage, I’m really talking about the work that goes into telling stories, okay. Taking the script from the page to the stage. I call that the practice of theatre. It all started for me in the early 90s when I was a grad student at McGill in the English department. And my mentor advisor told me that I had to give a lecture on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to 200 or more students in an amphitheater. Now I knew the material, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the word “lecture.” That is what kept me awake at night. So oops, sorry. So what does one do in a pre-Google world when you want to find a solution? You go to the library. So I went to the library and I’m at the checkout counter, I found a book about how to give a lecture and a young woman comes up to me, her name was Rachel Derrion and she said to me, are you an actor? I looked at her and said, me ha, no way, I am not an actor. I’m a lecturer. And she said well, what’s the difference? She asked me if I’d be part of her theater project, it was her thesis work and she said that she thought I’d be the perfect actor for the show. Well anyone who knows me knows that I am a challenge junkie. So sure enough that night I went to Morris Hall to see what this acting thing was all about. And thus began four weeks of intensive collaboration and rehearsals. And I have to say, those four weeks taught me more than any course I ever took over fourteen weeks. This is what I learned. I learned the meaning of deadlines. Okay, opening night is not negotiable. I can’t think of anything that would interfere with an opening night. As a matter of fact, when my production of Hamlet was opening my daughter went into labor. But the show was gonna go on. So I’m in the delivery room, encouraging push, push, the same time I’m turning around in my cell phone I’m giving instructions to the stage manager. And the nurse said to me, you should, the production really is going on here, I said no there’s another one going on, that’s what was happening. I also learned how to be calm in a crisis. The sound operator did not show up 10 minutes before the show was gonna happen, we find out he is not coming. And by the way Dave Finney is in the audience. The lead actress got cold feet opening night. That’s when you brought me a bottle of whiskey, Eric. The actor dropped his lines and there was nothing the other four actors could do to push the story forward. This one– (man mumbles) (laughter) The strap on the actor’s dress broke. And any minute now, I know her breast is gonna just pop right out of her dress. So, knowing that I did not die with any of these experiences I know that I can stay calm and carry on. I also learned how to use the whole body. One thing that actors know or theater practitioners know is that there’s the creative process involves much more than just the rational mind. But in classes we separate the mind and the body. The mind is there, it’s like we’re disembodied brains. So our mind is there but where are our bodies? Like in the next room eating a hamburger? In order to construct a convincing character theater people know that they must consume the text. They’ve gotta digest it, they’ve gotta really feel it in their bones, otherwise anything that they learned just will not stick with them. Same thing in our classes. We need to, when we feel it in our bones, we really know it. I participated in an acting workshop a number of years ago. And the goal was to crawl on the ground with blindfolds and we had to find the other people in the room and tap them before they tapped us. So it was really very interesting because when you’re on the ground, first of all, crawling means you have to go slowly. Your hands are on the ground and you can feel the vibrations of people around you. So that sensation, that sense is highly tuned. The same thing with not having eyes, you’re in total darkness. Was a shock to take the blinds off and see it was broad daylight. But while the blinds are on, you just have your sense of smell and sense of hearing and it’s really exhilarating to find you have these other senses to understand things, to understand the world. I also came to understand the value of that thing we call failure, that to try something that doesn’t work out very well is not to fail but it’s to learn. Fear of failure is so ingrained in us. We say it all the time, you got to get the grade, if you fail, what you gonna do? If you fail, you’re not gonna get a job. If you fail, you’re not gonna keep a job. If you fail, you’re gonna have to flip hamburgers or pack groceries, you cannot fail. But then I want to suggest how can you learn? When see say ah, that didn’t work, we’re taking an integral step toward finding a solution. Theater people use failure as a positive strategy for learning, allowing you to be receptive to ideas and tolerate not knowing the outcome. Feeling a little bit out of control. The way I did when I was in Rachel’s first rehearsal, oh boy, I also learned the value of foresight. Which is the talent to envision multiple outcomes or possibilities. And this aptitude is present in all theater workers, playwrights, directors, producers, actors, designers. When actors try out different versions of readings, different interpretations, when they improvise or create a backstory, they’re using foresight. And, and, the actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances not the actor’s circumstances so that requires a kind of step into the shoes of another. Which is something we don’t do very often. We make all of these decisions about our lives based upon our own circumstances and that’s all we really know but actors have this unique opportunity, not just actors, the directors, the producers, the playwrights, have an opportunity to really see the world from somebody else’s perspective. I directed this student in a scene in a 1970s play and the scene was she had to sit and wait on a park bench for quite a bit of time, I think like for three minutes. She didn’t know what to do. She had no idea how to be alone with her thoughts without having a cell phone to mitigate the boredom. No idea. So she just didn’t know how to be alone with her thoughts and what I want to say, solving scientific or mathematical problems or making discoveries won’t happen unless we can learn to be alone with our thoughts. I’ve learned from my experience writing, acting, directing and producing plays including 15 years here at Champlain College, that this quote I’m going to recite to you is true. Theater practice puts us on the front lines of cultivating creative citizens who have the intellectual tools to understand, to analyze, and to solve the most intractable problems of the day, including terrorism. With this view, I think theater can save us all. Thanks very much. (applause)

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