This article was prompted by the sudden death of my former student Ricci Anselmi.
Late in August of 2007, before our school year at The Theatre School began, some of our students were rehearsing a production of the Misanthrope. In the cast was a young man with whom I had worked in the previous year. His name was Ricci Anselmi, and he was among the most promising students of his year. He was set to graduate in June of 2008. On a lunch break from rehearsal he was killed riding his skateboard. He had gone to the local snack shop and never returned. At first, the young actors at the rehearsal waited for Ricci to return with no idea that anything had happened four blocks away. Finally, they got word that he had been taken to the hospital and was seriously injured and not expected to recover.
The cast and other students immediately went to the hospital to say their last good-byes. Ricci was not injured physically, his head had struck a curb and his death probably occurred more or less immediately. He bore no scars and rested in the bed as if asleep. The students visiting spontaneously began singing to him, popular songs they knew together, hymns, and songs from school productions. Some danced and some recited poetry. All talked to him as if he were alive to receive their last wishes. All of this in his hospital room.
His death left a deep wide hole in the fabric of our school and it will never be the same.
Two days later, the opening day of school, the theatre school celebrated, as we always have, with a party thrown in the outdoor courtyard that is encompassed by the four sides of our building. Every member of the staff, faculty, and student body attends this picnic, and we cancel the first afternoon of classes for it. In general, this is a time to greet everyone, to rejoice in our love for each other, and for the graduating seniors to begin their campaign to raise funds for the pictures, resumes, and trips they will need for their official entrance into the business. They hold a raffle and provide the entertainment at this event. Ricci had entered school as a freshman with this group of young actors.
Of course, Ricci’s death prompted the administration to question whether such an event would be appropriate. The graduating seniors responded that it was to be made in honor of Ricci.
A somber crowd gathered, with the exception of the new class of freshmen who didn’t really understand what was going on. As we all talked softly and ate our pizza, the graduating seniors full of their trained athleticism bound up onto the raised wooden platform in the corner of the yard. All eleven of them standing together minus their missing brother. They began by once again announcing Ricci’s death for those who hadn’t heard the news, and then gave a brief eulogy. They followed the eulogy with a rap-song co-written for the occasion by the class, with a call and response from the audience. It focused on Ricci’s daredevil life; on his frequent run-ins with authority, and the responding words expected of the audience were something like “Ricci was a bastard who rode his way to heaven”. I am sure it was more profane than this, but my amazed response at the released energy in the courtyard kept me from really knowing anything much--- except that I felt renewed and able to move forward as did everyone in the yard. Ricci began to move from the realm of the human to the gates of the gods. He became a trickster in the minds of all of us and we were somehow given solace because of this and the enormous laughter that reverberated off the walls of the surrounding school as the song took its effect. It was the laughing that did it, not the crying and not the eulogy.
Ricci is still alive in all of our memories, both those who knew him, and for those hapless freshmen who entered our midst when such grief stood upon us. As we left the courtyard, we were all changed both in ourselves with the others who had been at the event.
As a passionate theatre practitioner, I believe that the most fundamental use of our ancient art form is the reconciliation of humanity with itself, with the gods, and therefore with the natural and metaphysical world. That reconciliation seemed to me to have taken place in the courtyard that August. Theatre for me is not necessarily what happens in a designated performing space; it occurs whenever an “actor” and an “audience” willingly appear. This coming-together- spilt, this dualism exists for a certain amount of time and when it dis-appears, the two parts leave each other with a greater appreciation for their shared-ness as well as their separateness. The quality of live theatre itself involves a sensual, nearly fleshly exchange between the spectators and the actors. Whether behind masks as for the ancient Greeks, or behind grease paint, or naked-faced, or dancing in front of a dying youth in a hospital room, actors exist biologically in the same space as the audience but separate from it. As the brilliant British director and acting theoretician Declan Donnellan says, “A theatre is not only a literal space, but also a place where we dream together; not merely a building but a space that is both imaginative and collective.”
Imitation and imagination are the original technologies of learning and remain the methods by which babies learn to survive in the world. The joy of discovery and the necessity of role–enactment are genetic and shared by both humans and many not humans as well. We all play the copycat game. Actors may, through some exceptionally sensitive mirror- neuronic activity continue to “enact,” but everyone is born an actor. For any child to learn, he or she must be curious, attentive, observant, and mimetic. These little scientists test theories of nature and human nature through interactive and imitative play. As the child learns, he or she must be rewarded for success. “Eating, walking, talking, all are developed by copying and applause. Whatever human instinct is latent, it reaches virtuosity only after acute observation, repetition, and performance. Acting is a reflex, a mechanism for development and survival.” Thus the making of theatre, mimesis with an audience is one of the primary experiences of early life.
As a child’s experiments and learning begin to bear fruit, the growing consciousness soon discovers that not all discoveries are pleasurable. Some discoveries are painful. Some demand more energy than seems possible. The world begins to expand exponentially and threatens to reel out of control. Some way of capturing it is required. In order to get a handle on things, we codify things, name things, disregard most things, and deny many things, as a response to the painful experience and observation of unpleasantness. We decide against moving onto further research at quite a young age. It is as if we set out purposefully to blind ourselves. As if we decide that we must limit the vastness of human joy and terror, simply to avoid being overwhelmed.
As we begin to darken and focus the lenses of our minds, by accepting certain things into our world and eliminating others, what emerges is what we begin to call a ‘self.’—’Self’ as a reduction of possibility. —’Self’, as a closing down of expansion. As we separate our ‘self’ from the other less rewarding possible “selves” we perform a succession of self- abortions. However, somewhere left in the dark reaches of the brain is the loneliness for those lost others, the ones we left behind, the ones we didn’t become. Perhaps this is the true beginning of existential shame for us, the burying of a multiplicity of potential beings, so that we may stand-alone. The feeling of being alone and “only” begins to take hold, and it too terrifies us. We long to re-unite, not only with the former familial audience, but also with our forgotten potential lives. The actor, Forest Whitaker said the following in his acceptance speech for his Oscar: “...when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone--to that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.”
Not only the various forms of theatre, but also religion, dreams, and simple people-watching becomes a means for us to re-visit that which we deserted; to be re-united with a half-forgotten reality if only for a while. The left-behind others about whom I speak, include not only our mourned-for frail other-selves, but all of the strong, single-minded appetites on which we might have built alternative lives and identities, the tyrants, the mischief makers, the saints, the hedonists, the builders, the martyrs, the torturers, the dancers, the executioners, the sensualists, the explorers, the madonnas, the gluttons, the criminals, the lovers. They include the lions and tigers and monkeys and snakes and eagles and elephants and coyotes and dogs we could have been. All of these qualities of ravenous need form the archetypes familiar to us from the legends of many cultures and are hardwired and given faces in our unconscious world. It is truly unfortunate that we live in a more or less One God world; it seems so much more prudent to have many with whom to commune, who are not quite so awesome. Rather like being in a large family where Dad and Mom are so busy just feeding and housing the brood that the sisters and brothers become lesser gods for each other.
Like such a large family, religion and theatre provide the spaces, both actual and metaphoric in which to connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally with our archetypes alongside the equally disconnected other humans walking among us. The rituals performed by the actors and priests with their dances, movement, and words serve to unite us with the powerful symbols of our archetypes and to aid in our acceptance of the helpful and our rejection of the hurtful. The rituals repeat symbolically the old stories, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. Often the metaphor is lost to the participant, but there is still comfort in its very being.
In religion, I postulate, the more frequently we participate in these performances, the more accustomed we are to them, the more comfort we tend to receive from them. Religion exists to make us feel good about ourselves (if we obey the rules) as well as to create an orderly view of the universe and perhaps the afterlife.
Theatre’s function is to educate and entertain, not to make us feel good about ourselves nor secure in the universe. And when it is good it challenges the rules and forces us to see things differently. As a theatre practitioner, I am aware that there are only, arguably, forty-six plots, or twelve or four depending on your reference. Be that as it may, there are a finite number of stories. If one also understands that there are only seven or eight essential relationships, one can easily see that, given some arithmetic beyond my capabilities, there are no new stories. Both theatre and religion repeat the old stories; that is a major part of their ritual function, but only the theatre intends to irritate us with new questions about the old stories. Even when it has no political or sociological ax to grind, its function, besides ritual, is that of investigation into what makes us human and how to interpret the world around us.
Formal theatre (and I include film as well) in the United States has, for the most part, moved beyond it’s ancient traditions and been relegated by its general public to entertainment with the occasional serious piece thrown in for balance. Also, and with few exceptions, the American theatre has never been very political and rarely symbolic. The need for communal access to more universal ideas dealing with Rudolph Otto’s ‘mysterium tremendum’ seems to have been lost or rejected in the original colonies as a function of art in general. This was probably owing, in part, to the religious suspicion of the power of the churches’ secular and obstreperous brother to create doubt in the mind of its audience. The pilgrims and religious zealot who made up a powerful percentage of our orignal settlers wanted the audience for themselves, and wished to eradicate the sensuality implicit in the art of performance. The European theatre they had left was at its apogee when they departed. The beauty of the language, the frankness of the stories, and the complexity of the ideas and arguments addressed at that time were truly astonishing. This theatre, and its later writings, was available to a large number of people of any rank and the Protestant churches must have been truly envious.
Our Western theatre tradition began, at least according to some theorists, with the golden age of the Athenian theatre. The Greeks saw theatre attendance as a necessary part of citizenship because it served several functions simultaneously. We believe that the rituals of this theatre themselves were based on the sacrifice of a goat in early Greek religious practices. We know the first actors were also priests. As this began to change, as the Athenians became a democracy, the theatre was given a larger function. It united the citizenry on a psychic level, it re-enforced Greek political values of argument and counter-argument, and third it educated the potentially under-educated crowds both politically and morally. As Greece developed, so also did its theatre both for good and for ill. The writing became increasingly more humanly complex as the qualifications for citizenship became narrower. At the end, only the elite were left to attend.
Also, for the Greeks, the theatre was not a weekly or even monthly event; it was connected to a religious or civic festival and took place outdoors as a part of other competitive events. The festivals of Dionysius included winners and losers amongst the playwrights and eventually among the actors. The writers were also statesmen, soldiers, citizens and businessmen, and therefore an integrated portion of the elite community. However, there was little conflict between the temple and the theatre at the time. Such an idea would have been considered absurd. Of course Plato did come along and begin the proposed destruction of to theatre and mimesis which was almost completed by the Christians. But before him, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes mounted their astonishing works for the eternally grateful world.
At the festival of Dionysius, the largest of the Greek religious events, playwrights had to offer three tragedies and a comedy. This combination acknowledged that tragic feelings needed to be cauterized with the hot blade of comedy. And the comedies of the Greeks were generally satires based on present day events while the tragedies were most often historical and therefore metaphorical. Finally, though, the problem that beset the Greeks was the same problem that besets the modern theatre in America. It is an elitist event witnessed by elite audiences.
Most of my fellow theatre practitioners would attribute this problem to a lack of exposure to audiences whom they assume would fall in love with the experience as they themselves did. So we truck children by the busload to productions of Hamlet, or Antigone, or whatever else is edifying, and can’t understand when they don’t return. We attribute a lack of finances to our inability to advertise sufficiently, disregarding the amazing popularity of such black shows as Men, Money and Golf Diggers advertised only by small African-American centered publications and handbills. If we look around us, we will see that sunny, romantic, upbeat Broadway musicals are recycled endlessly throughout the land at high schools and community theatres and that Wicked is not having trouble getting an audience. The black plays on the famous ‘chitlin circuit’ tend to be very well attended despite their expense. And they draw an audience of people who rarely attend the kinds of ‘serious theatre’ we theatre folk flock to see. These shows are not ‘serious’ theatre, and therefore beneath our contempt, while they find audiences and money right beneath our much too sensitive noses. We have fallen victim to our own pessimism and tend to forget that pessimism and darkness are the part of life that most people want respite from. These shows do, however feature, clear and linear story lines with archetypal figures in the plot configurations. Their only fault from our theatrically pure perspective is a sentimental desire for a laugh and the possibility of a happy ending, just like the comedies at the end of the tragedies several thousands years ago. Or just like our elevation of Ricci Anselmi to demi-god status.
The difference in subject matter between the big shows attended by people who would never consider going to one of our earnest store fronts or our towering institutions is that they want to laugh as well as cry, and most of us theatre folks want them to think deeply about our offerings and possibly become politically or socially active and possibly cry as well.
As far as serious theatre, theatre that deeply examines issues using theatrical expression, we are pretty useless to change the world. We know this. We mope about it, we are self-righteous about it, we shake our fists at TV for taking our rightful audience, but finally we know the problem. We may be just too snooty, too taken with our importance.
We have pooh-poohed the very means by which we might be effective—vaudeville and musical theatre, clowning and dancing. We have forgotten how to entertain. Right now, many things are happening to change that attitude the Blue Man Group, Second City, the bread and puppet theatre, the Cirque du Soleil, the renewed interest in Clowning all are pointing the way through their use of humor, spectacle, and astonishing physical athleticism. The current theatre sees itself as needing to engage physically more that with language—there is a danger in this insofar as it moves from a theatre of narrative to one of sensation only. However, if the theatre is to be an effective vehicle for change, it must be far more entertaining, more physically arresting and far less self-conscious without losing it ability to tell an old story. It must re-unite its audiences with itself in a far more recognizable way.
A while ago, I went to see a film called “Charley Wilson’s War.” I went because I was interested in the subject matter, the war in Afghanistan, but also because Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were in it. It is the only film on the topic of the war I have ventured out to see since “The Departed” which I dutifully saw. The film was enormously entertaining, full of wit and featuring some great archetypes, the reformed reprobate, the wise but gruff guru, the beautiful temptress, the uptight bureaucrat, the dumb crook, and lots of goddesses. I recognized all of these types and took great delight in seeing them played by some wonderful actors who shook the truth out of these old stand-bys. As we left the theatre, my friend reported that Charley Wilson was one of the few movies concerning the Middle East that was making money for the studios. My guess is the reason for this is the easy recognizability of the demi-gods and the comedy of the whole thing.
As far as I can see, most of the citizens of the US regardless of political leanings have been in mourning for the death of our culture, our dreams, our soldiers, and our government. We need to go to the metaphoric courtyard, to mourn, to eulogize, and then to actively laugh as we all participate to heal the rift in our hearts and souls.So where does that leave us theatre people in the fight against the most urgent and challenging of all the wars, the fight for the environment? It seems obvious, that in spite of our fears, we must go outside, we must joke, we must make merry, we must find the archetypes that soothe, we must press the flesh. We must cut the giants of terror down to size. We must embrace a new Commedia, a new space and a new form of spectacle. We must create a series of wakes for our fallen planet.
Let us have burials and wakes for the trees we know we will lose to infestation, let us remember the parks that used to exist and plant afresh. Let us join together with the environmentalists, the oceanographers, the weather scientists, and make something of our shared problems. Let us create intrusions of a comic and musical variety into the workaday world. Bring a cow to the town square and sing to it; decorate the land to be destroyed, rip out invasive species and howl as we do so and then plant again, stage events in alleys where the garbage lurks. Celebrate the hunters who cull the herds of starving deer, rather than cursing them. Lets us close off streets on Arbor Day and name the trees. There are many, many things we can do that get us back into the courtyard at in The Theatre School at Depaul University to mourn, and then to celebrate, and then to get back to work strengthened as a community because of our mutual participation in the theatre of life.