Who Needs Theater?

by Erin Daley

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you do. You’re a theater artist or a theater lover, or a theater blogger’s father (Hi, Dad) and can’t imagine not being able to settle into a creaky seat in a musty smelling blackbox as the humming fresnels dim into a dark, anxious, stillness.  Nice, right? That’s fine, that’s me too but I am constantly struggling with my dedication to an esoteric, outmoded art form that is often ignored if not down right derided. Maybe it’s because my parents are cancer researchers or because all my hippie, summer camp friends have spent years abroad building schools and teaching children in 3rd world countries, but it often feels selfish and frivolous to be a theater artist. I feel like I should be doing something better with my life, like I should be helping the world. I know theater and art are beneficial in theory. I know there are numerous studies about the value of arts and arts education, how they make us smarter, more compassionate, more successful, healthier, prettier and so on and so on. I know that I love Theater, that I think it’s important but overall, it seems to have very little potential for affecting the change or “doing good” (or at least in the US, but more on that later).

There are many groups and individuals who are able to marry their humanitarian and social agendas with their artistic vision, for some people it’s one in the same. I am in awe of the intelligence, compassion and activism of such work, but at the same time, I know it’s not me. Trying to paint a social or political agenda over my theater would seem unfounded and inauthentic because those issues aren’t really in my realm of experience. They’re not what I struggle with, they’re not what keeps me up at night. My work, however twisted and abstract as it may get, is about human stories, relationships, dreams realized and dreams deferred, history, isolation, love, morality, “what it means to be alive” and all that gooky stuff.  I create theater to give the audience something exciting and challenging, to open up their worlds… but does it really help anyone or create any lasting change?

In some places, theater is still powerful and relevant. The Belarus Free Theater is an excellent current example of theater truly being the voice and vanguard of a movement, a platform for opposition and revolution that could not happen anywhere but on a stage. A little further back, Václav Havel, a playwright, was elected president of Czechoslovakia and led it through its transformation to the democratic Czech Republic. Can you imagine a playwright becoming a president in the US? Maybe Ronald Regan will be the closest we get. Finally, since organized religion was banned in Soviet Russia, the theater became the nation’s substitute spiritual institution. Russians during that repressive era went to the theater to gain community, to hear stories that informed their lives, to witness beauty and truth and feel a part of something larger than themselves.  This sentiment is still alive today as the Russian theater and its artists are revered as a national treasure.  After a performance, if Russians sees an actor backstage, they don’t say “Great job” or “You were amazing”. They say “Thank you”, recognizing the artist’s gift to the audience and how they affected them.

But what do we do in America, where things are comparatively nice and easy?  Yes, we have to pay taxes and everything but the majority of people who have the disposable income to attend the theater lead relatively comfortable lives. What good are we doing there?

What do you think, dear Blog Readers, do we need a revolution or a dictatorship for the theater to become important? What is the use of theater in the US? Who’s listening to what it is saying? Do we need to make our art smarter, cheaper, angrier, more socially guided or accessible in order to have a real voice? How can the theater really help people?

The best conclusion that I can find comes to me by way of one of my acting teachers. He told us of a friend, acquaintance, or friend of a friend who was an actor in a successful, modern theater company. Their art was challenging and invigorating and their popularity had allowed them to travel the world with their work. On these trips, however, the actor witnessed such poverty, hunger and suffering that he started to question his profession.  Why make art for the comfortable class, why devote your life to a diversion when the world needs so much help? He was at the height of this dilemma when he found himself in Calcutta. Desperate for guidance, and perhaps a little compulsive, he decided to seek out Mother Teresa for advice. He camped outside her building all day as he waited for her return home. Finally at dusk, he saw a small white sari pass through the building’s metal gate, surrounded by a protective entourage. The actor rushed to the gate and shouted out to Mother Teresa, pleading for an audience. Words poured out of him as he described his inner conflict of being a theater artist, of dedicating his life to something so frivolous when the world was so broken and needed so much help.  She listened, walking toward him as he asked if he should give up his craft, if there was something better, grander to do with his life.  The tiny woman looked down and paused for a moment in thought before meeting his gaze, gently saying. “In my country, we have a famine of the body, in yours, a famine of the soul. You must go on.”

By day, Erin Daley is a mild mannered Coordinator working in the Commercial Industry, but by night, she is the great explorer of all things theatrical.

3 responses to “Who Needs Theater?

  1. While I understand and can relate to your questioning, I personally believe theatre is the opposite of frivolity – as Mother Teresa said, we need some soul, and even tiny black boxes with pay what you can admissions challenge and encourage empathy and growth more so than “comfort” a privileged class. The need for interaction in real time and real space is very dire, in a sense I don’t believe we fully yet understand.
    Likewise, theatre of the political or social justice-kind is not limited to painting an agenda. Every month I write about theatres in LA doing innovative, impactful social theatre for the website Bitter Lemons, and I’m blown away by the diversity of thought and purpose. Check it out sometime and hang in there – theatre needs self-aware, articulate artists like You!


  2. That’s the most inspiring explanation I’ve heard to date. Thank you!


  3. greg margulies

    very thoughtful and well said, if nothing else, the human spirit needs a break now and then.


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