Mirror, Mirror on the Stage

In a previous blog post, I’ve talked about how theater is a mirror to humanity, reflecting our joys our sorrows, reflecting our dignity and depravity. This past weekend, the mirror was held up to me three times, and I experienced solace, hope, and a challenge.

Solace was found in the Junior Directing Assignment at DeSales University. I went to see my sister perform the lead character in The Trojan Women by Euripides. A powerful play, boosted by powerful performances, became a cathartic experience for me.

The one-act started after the destruction of Troy and followed the women who were left alone, bereaved of their husbands, brothers, sons, and doomed to become the slaves of their Greek conquerors. The main storyline follows the grief of the dethroned Hecuba as she learns the fate of her daughters; in particular, the fate of Cassandra.

Watching the story unfold just two months after the death of my dear friend reflected the stages of my grief I have experienced: the listless groveling, the outbursts of angered heartbreak inflicted upon walls (or in the case of the play, columns), the deadened acceptance, the groping to hold on to the one whom I had lost, the wailing. As Hecuba and Cassandra said goodbye, they clung to each other, moved away from each other, yelled at each other to be heard, and embraced each other once final time, it was my story. My friend was a second mom to me, and I understood the pain that those characters experienced.

Strange as it may sound, seeing that pain expressed in a different context, with reversed roles, gave solace to me, as if having it removed from me gave me perspective and helped me to take the next step in healing. Hecuba wept the tears that I had wept.  Hecuba clung to the daughter she could not keep, as I have tried to cling to the memory of a mentor. Hecuba flung herself against a column, as I flung myself against a wall. Hecuba’s deadened face was a reflection of what my expression has been so often these past months. At the end, as Hecuba let out her final wail, I cried with her, consoled by our shared grief.

A word needs to be said about the fabulous acting and direction that were the mirror to my grief. The women who played Hecuba and Cassandra, Marian Barshinger and Kirsten Spence respectively, were wonderful. They were incredibly natural with each other, never once playing to the audience, never once going over the top. Greek tragedies aren’t easy to perform; their origins and writing lend them to melodrama: powerful oration, sweeping gestures, extreme outbursts of emotions The director did a great job of honoring that style without allowing it to be overdrawn. I thank them all for their beautiful work.

Another theatrical experience, the Fireside production of Oliver, brought me a glimpse of hope. To my shame, I wasn’t very familiar with the story of Oliver, and while musicals are not my favorite, I greatly enjoyed getting to know the story. Watching Nancy’s redemption (even though it ended in tragedy), and Oliver’s rescue filled me with hope: hope that change is possible. In the second half, I whispered to my mother that POTS should perform Oliver in the near future.

On Saturday I saw Fame, put on by the Lincoln Leadership Academy. The timing of this musical was timely: it is about high school students tackling art in a performing arts school and struggling towards fame while struggling against its downfalls. Just that afternoon, my husband and I had gone for a walk and I had expressed my desire to contribute plays to the theater culture that would make an impact, lasting past my lifetime. As I watched Fame, my internal struggle between wanting to “make it” in theater for my own glory and for the love of the art was played out.

Many of the characters were at the high school because they genuinely loved their craft, and I got the impression that regardless of how famous they became, they would always create. Others were more interested in themselves and in becoming famous. At the end of the first half, the main character, Carmen, left the school to pursue fame in L.A. Carmen’s obsession with fame led to her being exploited and squandering her talents. By the end of the play, she had tragically died of a drug overdose.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting your work to become known and appreciated— how could an artist not want his work to be experienced; art isn’t meant to live in a vacuum— the play reminded me of the dangers of putting fame first, both to the quality of the work and also the quality of my life.  It’s something I need to evaluate from time to time, and I imagine every artist does, too. Why am I doing this? What’s the most important thing to me in my pursuit of art? I still desire for my work to be known one day. I know a part of that is the glamor of fame, but I hope that as I mature, glorifying God and enriching people’s lives will be become a larger part of my motivation in my work. Watching Fame challenged me to examine my motives and recommit my art to Christ.

These are some examples of the power that theater possesses. This is why I want to use theater as means of communicating, because it can it reach into your heart and mind, meeting you where you are to comfort you, challenge you, and change you. I pray that God will enable Players of the Stage to produce works that do just that.