Is Theater a Religion?
How I Got Religion
So, it’s about 20 years ago, and one of my kids, then around 10, is in Meredith Wilson’s band at our local community theater, learning his instrument through the Think Method. During a rehearsal break, the kids are talking about where they go to church or synagogue. Everyone but my son has something to share. He comes home, upset: “Mama, how come we don’t believe in anything?”
“We do believe in something,” I assure him. “We just don’t believe there’s a God.”
“What do we believe in?” I’ve left him outnumbered and defenseless, and I have to come up with something fast. “We believe in the theater,” I tell him. I might have said we believe in the First Amendment or in the scientific method, which would have been true, too.
He looks at me, and I start improvising: The theater takes us out of ourselves, puts us in touch with people everywhere and throughout time, through the things we all share, the need for love, the fear of death. Then it brings us back to ourselves, renewed, connected.
He gets the gist. Later, we will broaden this to all the arts, to encompass his grandmother, the painter, his grandfather, the musicologist, his father, purveyor of wildcat concepts that make us laugh, and me, then a wanna be dramaturg, harboring dreams of assembling production bibles. Our family religion has become Art, and we worship-well, worship, and criticize, and engage with-museums, concert halls, libraries, and yes, theaters. I have made my case, and he will grow up to embrace the family faith in his own way.
How I Lost Religion
So maybe ten years later, I’m making a pilgrimage to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge MA. Ron Daniels, associate artistic director at the time, is talking to me about the play he is directing and about theater in general. His words tumble out, full of passion. I am inspired and reminded of me, when I’m doing one of my better dinner-table sermons. I try to paraphrase something he has just said-I am in journalist mode, taking notes, and I have to be sure I have it right: “In other words, the theater is your religion?” I ask.
He has heard that nonsense before, and it seems to annoy him. He doesn’t have blind faith in the theater. At least, that’s what I imagine he said. It’s been years. I no longer have the notes, and Daniels can’t remember that interview. Still, the message, or my distorted memory of it, has come back to me many times over, and it has made me ask myself: Is theater really a religion? Do I insult the theater when I compare it to something as mired in confusion as traditional religions are?
Artists, good ones, are more competent than the Judeo-Christian God, who apparently has left His long running production to the whims of an incompetent stage manager. Life may go on without reason or meaning, but serious playwrights create worlds that make sense. They don’t give their characters free will, allowing them to run willy-nilly through the work, with a protagonist dying in the opening scene and others deciding whether or not to participate in climactic moments. The artists who realize the script impose coherent interpretations on it. Art gives structure to chaos, meaning to the absurd. Samuel Beckett may have written plays we call absurd, but just change a line in one of them and you’ll see how seriously his estate takes every carefully constructed phrase, every stage direction.
When I bring up the question now, Daniels shares what he says is his idiosyncratic view: Something happens to him when he works well, something that takes him out of the realm of rational thought, something some might consider spiritual. “A lot of people gather together to examine or share a collective experience that for me is rather wonderful, especially if it’s kind of ritualistic,” he says. “If you go and see a Shakespeare play, the likelihood is you’ve seen that play before so you’re not particularly interested in the narrative as such. Even though you may be interested in the interpretation, essentially, it’s a collective experience or, if you like, spiritual experience.”
“When I’m working with Shakespeare, particularly with Shakespeare, and working well, a strange thing happens. I don’t have a single thought in my head. It’s almost like being a conduit, a vehicle. Things come out of my mouth that I didn’t know were there. So it’s not rational. It’s kind of unconscious. They say a tennis player or football player is playing badly because he’s thinking too much. You can’t think too much. Working with Shakespeare is in a strange way almost like being in touch with some kind of divine spirit. When I finish the work, it’s always restorative.”
Of course Daniels does a lot of thinking and planning before he goes into rehearsal, before he abandons himself to the experience. He can make spontaneous changes without losing the point of his production because he knows where he’s heading.
I suppose there are those who sort though complex ideas before accepting the thinking of a particular theology, but members of a faith are not required to think it through, the way a director must make sense of a script before letting go. In fact, there is a bias against thinking, even at the onset. The final answer I get when I question a believer is invariably, “I can’t explain it. You just have to have faith.”
Still, I’m not here today to reach a conclusion but to explore a possibility. Is theater a religion? What do you think?
If theater is a religion, Ron Daniels may have changed faiths: he has been directing for opera and film more often than plays lately. In an upcoming column, I’ll ask him five questions about how he approaches each.
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