When I was a little girl, I often found myself digging through my mother’s closet and drawers to create what I termed “old-timey” clothes. My mother’s fashion sense was not in any way “old timey”—but her nightgowns could be layered and belted on my frame to resemble the great robes of eighteenth-century royalty. It fascinated me that people from long ago did not attire themselves as we did in the early 1980s, and I wanted to explore that with my own “designs” and imagination.
I was also a pretty voracious reader. After reading Little Women (the abridged version) as a third grader, I would spend hours in my room reenacting scenes from Meg’s life. Not long after, I was orchestrating talent shows and made-up plays from the living room with neighborhood children. Yes, I was *that* kid.
After one particular living-room performance, which idealistically I believed EVERYONE would want to be a part of, I found myself near tears because one of my friends had categorically refused to participate. I now understand that she had stage fright, but that didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist in my genetic make-up. To heap insult upon injury, my mother pulled me aside for a scolding. My offense? I had invited the neighborhood into our home without warning and the house was a mess. Oops.
So it was time to redirect my energies. My mother happened upon an ad in the paper for a local children’s theatre. Their production for the summer? Little Women. Did I want to audition? (She had to explain to me what an audition was first.) Ummm, YES! And while disappointed to learn I was too young to play Meg, I did receive the part of Beth. The rest is history.
There are two interesting segues to this story. The first is that the adaptation of Little Women we performed was “cleaned up.” Spoiler alert. In this version, nobody died. Imagine my ten-year-old brain trying to conceive why anybody would want to change a word of Louisa May Alcott’s literary masterpiece. Where is my death scene?!?! Everybody should grieve Beth’s sacrifice, illness, and loss! It was unconscionable. Eventually, however, I adjusted to the new approach, but it rang false. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I know today that theatre was/is a way to wrestle with the difficulties of life. That it was and is necessary to explore grief, love, doubt, inequality, and suffering through art.
The other branch to this story is providential. Just a few months prior to my audition for Little Women, I heard the gospel presented in church—for what was probably the thousandth time—in a way that finally hit me.
My Sunday-School teacher was a rather rotund, middle-aged man named Buddy. Buddy was unassuming, humble, and full of kindness. And I liked him because he didn’t condescend to us. There was no baby-talk. There were no silly voices or exaggerated tales. We were fourth and fifth graders together. We were the highest echelon of elementary students. Top dogs. Almost adults. And he spoke to us with the gravest sincerity, and his words sunk in deep.
I find it no coincidence that, after meeting Jesus, I should be introduced to the world of theatre. I wouldn’t understand the connection between the two for years, even as I hungrily gobbled up every theatre opportunity that presented itself, but that fact was that God was preparing me, shaping me, using me as He designed me to be: an artist who is compelled to create in the image of her Creator—obliged to create in an effort to explore, to connect, to relate, to entertain, and to educate.
This brings me to the crux of this post. An acquaintance of mine queried last year, “What really is the purpose of theatre at a small, liberal arts school?” Or, we might ask, “What is the value of theatre anywhere?” What does it do? What should it do? The debate is as old as theatre itself. And there are (generally) two camps that the arguments fall into: theatre as entertainment and theatre as instruction. Theatre should delight! Theatre should inform! Well, yes. And yes.
There are those who want escapist entertainment that doesn’t require much thought. They want to be awed by the spectacle and roll with the laughter. Theatre should be equal parts romance, poetic justice, and action. It should allow them to set aside their own concerns for a few hours, and delight in the trials and triumphs of some other life.
Then there are those who want to be challenged by something new, who want their perspective challenged, who want to examine the tough subjects through the intimate setting of theatre. They carry the story with them beyond the curtain call and into the days and weeks ahead, turning it over in their mind and wrestling with it in their conversations.
The best theatre, in my opinion, does both. It explores relevant topics or stories in a way that captures the audience’s imagination and heart. It inspires discussion at the very least. It never bores. It demands examination and change. It emboldens and encourages. It lifts and it humbles. It heals and it hurts. Therein lies its purpose and its value. And I know of no other way to bring so many diverse topics and so many different people together in one collaborative, cathartic event than the theatre. And to me… that has great worth.