There is no such thing as a blank page. The theatre is not a blank page; not even our lives are blank pages. The theatre has decades of stories upon which we build theatrical art, and we have generations of stories upon which we base our journeys and develop our lives, our world view, our unique story. Stories create memory and identity, and the act of telling our stories creates an empathetic bridge between human beings. As we move toward the symbolic 2020, it seems that an empathetic bridge may be the most important infrastructure that we could build.
Telling stories in the theatre can mean that we tell the stories of others through the playwright’s vision or we tell our own unique stories through devised theatre that young students build with the help of the theatre director. Whether we are focused on original storytelling or telling the stories of others, it is the process that becomes paramount. We create the world we want to live in in the rehearsal space and through the process. It is in the rehearsal room where questions are asked, and methods are tried. It is in the rehearsal room where creative risks are taken in the name of telling a story. Through the rehearsal process, young people learn to express their ideas in a room where others might disagree and to negotiate that moment of disagreement. In a singular collaborative effort to tell stories in creative ways, and with the deadline of opening night, the process is heightened, and passions are fired in young budding artists. This is when I am reminded that it is innovation in small rooms that make bigger rooms possible.
Why is it important that young people experience the theatre as an audience member? During any theatre performance, there are several things going on. First, there is the play and the story it tells. There is also the story of the actors in performance. How are the actors getting along in performance? Further, how is the audience doing? And finally, how are the actors and the audience doing as they experience the theatrical moment together? The point of theatre is not just what happens on the stage, but the energy that is created in that moment between the actors and the audience, between the story the play tells and the audience’s reaction to it. That energy, that immediacy, is what we lose when we are not part of a live audience viewing a live art form. The theatre is about community systems, meaning, how are we getting along? No other artform uses that as its essential material.
Since this is an essay about storytelling, it seems I should close with one of my own, my favorite, and it is at the heart of what makes theatre, theatre. I happened to be fortunate enough to be in the 1968 national tour of The King & I with Yul Brenner. He told a story, many times, about singing “A Puzzlement” each night. He said that when he got to the end just before the final word “puzzlement,” he would pause, look at the audience and silently wonder how long they would let him wait before he said the word. He holds, the audience waits, he finishes the phrase and audience responds. That moment, to me, is the heartbeat of the theatre, the moment that only live theatre can give a live audience, and the moment that will build the empathetic bridges we so desperately need.