The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.

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“Our Town” at Northern Stage.

I’d never seen Our Town before. I’d read it of course.   Thornton Wilder’s best-known play has been a staple in high school English classes ever since its debut back in 1938, and for good reason. But reading it is nothing, seeing it is everything. There’s no scenery and not much in the way of costumes. It’s not that kind of play. But in the third act, watch out. When it’s done right, you’ll be thinking about what you saw for weeks, or maybe even a lifetime.

And it was done right at Northern Stage in White River Jct., Vt. in a run that just ended on Saturday. Carol Dunne, the artistic director, knows how to cast, and knows how to get the best performances from her actors. There wasn’t a weak part in the ensemble, even among the children who populate Grovers Corners. John Hutton as the stage manager was terrific, with a voice any performer would envy, and a presence that was at once commanding, but serene in his omniscience. Sutton Crawford in the role of Emily had the audience in the palm of her hand with exactly the right combination of innocence and maturity. We loved Emily from the beginning and when she’s up in her room, gazing at the moon—what an extraordinarily beautiful thing to witness!

But the image that haunts us, that slices through us right to the depths of our being, is the end of Act III, with those dead souls in the graveyard, waiting, waiting… They know what we don’t. They stare straight ahead, speaking laconically, without moving in the dim light. They are in touch with the stars, with eternity, with the Divine, while the grieving husband collapses sobbing on the grave of his wife. No words can describe what the stage brings to a scene like that. It’s the power of live theatre, the Sacrament of the Arts, and Wilder understood it better than most.

Our Town may be the best American play ever written.   It’ll be around forever. Let’s hope Northern Stage in its brand-new theatre will be, too.  If you’re in New England, check them out!

Christmas Rituals at the Theatre

The Christmas season is a time when we crave ritual. People go to church who usually stay away. We sit once again through Christmas pageants, replete with mangers, wise men, and angels heard on high. We sing the old Christmas songs yet again, and put up our trees with the good old ornaments that comfort us, perhaps reminding us of a time when our children were little, and the thrill of the season was evident on an hourly basis in their excited chatter.

Rituals are strange things and I devote a section to them in my book Seven Sacraments for Everyone:

If we grow up with rituals, performing them day-in, day-out, there can be a tendency to simply go through the motions without too much thought. The danger then is that they become meaningless, losing their connection to the sacred.   Creating new rituals in their place runs its own risks.   As you surf through the various rituals offered on websites from all over the world, you can’t help feeling that there is something random in selecting any one of them, and any attempt at initiating a lasting ritual where none exists in a community or even in your family would be difficult, especially given the cynicism that is so much a part of the age we live in. If you stand apart from rituals, watching yourself performing them, it’s easy to feel self-conscious.

But the attempt should be made, and the way to make it work is to lose yourself in them wholeheartedly. Baseball great Yogi Berra was trying to explain hitting to some young players once—what to do at any given moment with their wrists, their arms, their legs. He was struggling to find the words and finally, he simply said, “Ah, just watch me do it.”    Karen Armstrong has some similar advice for those searching for a religious experience: religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practice work—you have to just do it. It takes skill and hard work like anything, but you’ll find the truth of religion by practicing it. Like Yogi Berra’s swing, the Daoists saw religion as a “knack”—when you get the hang of the rituals you can get in touch with the deepest level of your being.

The best example of an effective American ritual is one that does battle with cynicism. It comes every Christmas when all over the country people watch the Christmas story with their families. Not the story of Mary and Jesus, but of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, retold in so many different ways on stages, in films or on television. The spirit of Christmas comes out in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol so perfectly: sympathy, generosity, companionship, parental love, marriage, songs, dancing, death, reconciliation, redemption—so many of the sacraments are there in that single short story and this annual ritual touches us all no matter how old we are. These are mythic characters and universal themes. Like the ancient Greeks watching the first dramas, we know the story backwards and forwards, but we still have a sense of catharsis and ekstasis in watching Scrooge’s transformation as he is reminded of the kindness and love he experienced as a younger man and discovers around him in the present. It is the defeat of cynicism at the hand of compassion.”

I had the pleasure of working with some excellent actors at Northern Stage Theatre in White River Junction, Vermont last month as they rehearsed A Christmas Carol, now playing until the end of December. In addition to what I wrote in my book, this play, and also the Nutcracker, that perennial favorite, is a time when young children in the community have the opportunity to act on stage with adults, which ultimately brings their parents into the theatre, and grandparents and aunts and uncles—it’s something that is harder and harder to do these days, to create a live-theatre experience that an entire community can be part of. But when you’re in it, either as actor or as audience member, it’s unforgettable. It’s grace. God bless us, everyone!