This week one of my colleagues suggested I discuss how we connect with a production. And, in reflection, each one has a different… love story.
Initially, we certainly hope to be touched by the narrative itself. We all have our favorite novels, short stories, movies, or television shows. There is something about them that we delight to revisit every now and then. Maybe it’s the action or the setting. Maybe it’s the language or the character relationships. Maybe it’s the big mess of feeling we are left with at the conclusion. Perhaps there is something satisfying or redeeming about the work. Surely, it’s some fantastic combination of all of these.
In order to spend several months on any particular work, we must find something we desire to be a part of. Something much bigger than ourselves. Something that speaks to our own need for connection.
Connection. That’s a huge reason why we do what we do. And it starts with a connection to the playwright’s voice.
We are constantly reading. New plays appear on the market all the time. We listen to suggestions from friends and critics. We seek out historical work with a timeless message. The search is relentless for that one play or musical that grapples with our heart strings and illuminates a part of our own journey.
When I set out to find my thesis play–a work I would spend months researching, rehearsing, and ultimately writing a 200+ page thesis on–I knew it must capture my soul. It had to combine characters I would adore with a journey that would rend my heart. I found it in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Every single act ended with a page-turning climax. The characters were both noble and flawed. And their over-arching desire was to be loved. To be loved. Loved for who they were… in spite of who they were. Battlefield skirmishes, honorable sacrifices, swordplay, poetry and unquenched desire set in seventeenth-century France? What’s not to love? It grabbed hold and would not let go. It filled that void inside me… a need to be a part of something bigger than myself. Something nobler than myself. Something more beautiful.
Cyrano and I connected. And I poured myself into the process.
As a director, designer, playwright, or actor, so much of yourself goes into a production. When your work is torn down or criticized, a little piece (or a huge chunk) of your confidence goes with it. But I know of no other way to honor the work than to fully invest my own self in it. Because I’m asking every one of my collaborators to make a personal investment as well. So the choice must be to select something that feeds your creative soul.
So what happens when you don’t have a say in the choice?
You still have to find your way in.
When ETBU’s School of Fine Arts decided to do Sunday in the Park with George as its huge centennial celebration production, I didn’t really know much about the show. However, people I trusted loved it and recommended it.
All throughout the summer prior to casting and rehearsing, I tried and tried to connect with it. I read it over and over. I researched it. I watched the original Broadway production repeatedly on DVD.
Nothing. Nada. Zip. I wasn’t connecting to it on any level. Not the story. Not the music. Not the message. Not the characters.
We finalized the design. Nothing. We held auditions. Nothing. We started rehearsals…
It wasn’t until I saw the students grapple with the difficulty of the piece that I found my way in. I would come to love this show because I loved them. Every one of them. And I think we were all a little terrified of the challenge before us and deeply grateful that we were not alone in the process.
Sunday in the Park with George is ultimately about the sacrifice and work it takes to make great art. It’s about the compulsion to create and the need to make our mark through excellence. But it doesn’t sugarcoat the end result which is often marred by the struggle to find balance and priority in the midst of the creative process. It can get ugly, gritty, short-tempered, and self-absorbed. George is also about connection and, conversely, disengagement. Somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about the cost of art… and what happens when we mix up our priorities and fail to invest in those who invest in us.
It’s odd, really. We examine all kinds of human disconnection through this unique collaboration we call theatre. Play by play we look at selfishness, fear, manipulation, rejection, and neglect. Play by play we also examine generosity, courage, perseverance, grace, and sacrifice. And we apply what we learn to our own lives and worldview. We know intimately the God-sized hole in our own hearts and the many things we try to fill it with.
So by the end of my time with both Cyrano and George, I had become acutely aware of the respective sacrifices and hardships they explored, and my own life became the wiser for it.
We are made for connection. And theatre, through its timeless tales and characters, connects people across history, across miles, across the curtain line, and across the stage.
…yet another reason why I love this discipline so much.