To pick up where we left off, Jesus is just about to receive the Oscar for Best Performance by a Messiah, when he’s arrested and executed based on accusations by jealous actors.
If you’re lost already, go back and read my last post, "Acting", now retitled "Acting part 1". It’s short. It will change your life. At least one of those statements is true.
Now that you’ve read part one, let’s move on.
The question now is this: How can Jesus criticize the priests and Pharisees for being hypocrites—or “actors” in the original Greek—when he is so clearly a performer himself? The answer to this question is what the “Acting” posts are ultimately all about. But before we can get to that, a couple of things need clarifying.
This isn’t about discovering the “historical” Jesus. I wouldn’t presume. The Jesus I’m writing about is the one everybody knows—the main character in the best-selling book of all time. This Jesus—the ‘literary’ Jesus if you will—is undeniably the most famous figure in what we used to call Western Civilization. Love him, hate him, I'm betting you’ve heard of him. You might think the gospels are gospel or you might think they’re the ancient Semite equivalent of Star Wars. It doesn’t matter. Not only have you heard of him, but, whether he's fact or fiction, and whether you like it or not, you’ve been influenced by him.
Because the Jesus of the gospels has shaped European and Western culture more than anyone else, real or imagined. More than George Washington, more than Socrates, more than Frodo. For two thousand years, he’s been at the center of the dominant religion (obviously), but also the center of art, literature, architecture, history. He, and the church that claims to follow him, are at the center of our ideas of ethics and morality, of what we label good and bad. We can agree or disagree with the teachings, but we can’t ignore them. Those who’ve created other standards of morality—Nietzsche and Marx being the most obvious—define their ideas by opposing them to the dominant culture, I.e. to Christianity. He’s inescapable.
Finally, he’s at the center of our conception of who we are as individuals. From Virgil to Cervantes to Dante to Dostoevsky to Frodo to Skywalker: the stories our culture tells itself are variations on a single theme. The great figures of literature are, almost to a man, Christ figures. Of course, the great figures of literature are, almost to a man, men. So there’s that. Being a man, however, I’m somewhat limited in my ability to get past that perspective. So we’ll go on.
You might think that in calling a Jesus a “performer” I’m attempting to diminish him in some way. You would be wrong. But before I explain why, I feel the need to support my assertion that he is, in fact, a performer. Here are a few examples:
These all point to someone who thinks and acts theatrically, and who understands and participates in role playing. Our society tends to think of this kind of behavior as ethically dubious. It has the smell of dishonesty about it. People who do that are "acting" in the bad way I wrote about in Part One. It's "all an act." "Just putting on a show." People who do this are thought to have ego issues, today's 'drama queens.' It's why calling Jesus a "performer" or "actor" feels wrong, insulting.
But maybe just the opposite is true. Maybe performance is the heart of ethical behavior.
I'm aware how odd that sounds. In fact, it's so odd I'm going to say it again, without the qualifier: Performance is the heart of ethical behavior. I'm perfectly serious, and, not that you care, but it's something I've been thinking about for 25 years now. I'm not just blowing smoke here, not that I expect you to take my word for it. But I’m going to start, beginning next installment, to make the case that this is true. And dear readers, I think both of you will find it interesting. Stay tuned.
There’s an unusual and important performance project coming up this weekend, at the Kerr Warehouse and sponsored by Living Arts and NightLight Tulsa. It’s called, “7 Doorways / 7 Stories: Collaborative Artists Giving Homeless Individuals a Voice.” The idea is simple, but shocking in its unfamiliarity. Let members of Tulsa’s homeless community, of which there are approximately 2,000 at any particular point in time, to tell their stories, and allow local artists to shape those stories into performance presentation—drama, dance, video, music.
The Kerr Warehouse is at 12 N. Cheyenne, and has seven doorways open onto the street. Each doorway frames a story/performance. The entire evening begins with a free burger meal at 8 pm, shared between the audience, artists, and the homeless community, and provided by NightLight Tulsa. The performances, each approximately 10 minutes, then begin around 9 pm. NightLight Tulsa is the organization which gathered the stories, sending people out to shelters and encampments, and encouraging the people there to share their experiences and transcribing the interviews. In partnership with Living Arts, artists were invited to collaborate in groups to shape these stories into the pieces being presented this Saturday.
David Blakely acts as one of the team leaders of this project, supported in his group by Anna Hudson, Mark Leavitt, and Tim Hunter, and we spoke briefly about how he got involved and his interest in this kind of socially conscious theatre.
David: I'm in it because of an earlier project I was involved that was similar. I had gathered numerous stories over last 18 months. I volunteer at the Day Center for the homeless at Denver and Archer, and interviewed some of the people there along with my co-writer Anna Hudson. A magnificent writer, covered South by Southwest for the Voice, a delight to read. She has a scholarship to RSU, and is in one of my classes.
David and Anna had put together a performance art piece as part of the last Art Crawl in May. They had taken 9 of the stories they'd collected and turned them into "testimonials." They then recruited 9 actors, including Tim Hunter, Sally Adams, Andy Axewell, and Robert Spencer Walters. Each was given a story. Each artwork in the gallery, created by student artists and artists from the homeless community, was associated with one of the stories. As a bystander became interested in a piece, the actor associated with that piece approached and began to share his or her story.
David: It's part of the decision I made to do art for social practice. We're creating a text out of a population that we want to empower, to draw attention to . . . it's a movement across the country. Art for social change. In this event coming up on Saturday, the communal meal is followed by the presentation. My part in it is that I've put together 2 of the stories from the earlier, Art Crawl event and linked them with an original song written for the event. I'm excited about that, but more excited that Tulsa's artistic community is getting behind doing this. And it's free! We want to get a bunch of people there.
And now, the editorial. Since I was reassigned to Central Center from Henthorne, I've become much more aware of the homeless situation in Tulsa. There is no one explanation of why someone becomes homeless, every situation is unique, though mental illness, losing one's job, and losing the support of your family can all swiftly spiral into losing one's home. I've also seen how the support groups in town can help in getting people back on their feet, though that doesn't happen often enough. But if you want to learn more about what's going on in our city, you might want to think about attending this event. And the more you learn, the more you might want to help. Irongate, NightLight Tulsa, Salvation Army, John 3:16, and other organizations are both keeping people alive, and helping to give at least some of them a chance at a better life. Putting $5 into the hand of the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign isn't the same thing as contributing something every month into one or two of these organizations, or volunteering once a month. The reality is that this problem isn't ever going to go away. So the question is, how can we help?
Joyce Shank, long time musical director of Clark Theatre musicals, passed away on Thursday. I don't have any other details, I'll post them if I receive them.
I can't remember ever seeing Joyce in bad mood. She was always, at least in my experience, a peaceful, joyful presence. This picture, taken just a month or so ago, when I gather she knew the end was near, shows her as she was--smiling, reassuring, at peace. In the hospital, she talked, a little vaguely, but hopefully, about us working together again, even though, as she said at the time, her hands weren't able to play anymore. I'm not exactly sure what she meant, or how confused she may have been, but I hope it's true.
Ahh, Christmas at the theatre. It's a weird, wild, wonderful place. People who haven't been to a a play all year will come out to see A Christmas Carol for the 27th time. It's kinda like church.
I saw two plays this weekend. It’s a Wonderful Life played out at the Coleman Theatre Beautiful in Miami, an amazing theater fully restored to its 1920’s grandeur, a genuine architectural treasure and reminder of how even small towns used to regard their theatres as centerpieces of civic community. The second was watching my 4 year old grandson participate in a nativity in the tiny fellowship hall of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Bixby.
I could write pages on the Coleman theater, and if you’ve never been it’s worth the trip. But it’s not going to come as too big a shock that I enjoyed watching my grandson more. But more than that, I enjoyed the performance more, and that is something of a shock, even to me, enough so that I had to think about why that was the case.
With apologies to my church friends, it’s not because I like the story better. The Nativity story (actually a mashup of two radically different Biblical accounts) is beautiful in its way. Apart from any religious belief, if you can’t be affected by a young refugee mother giving birth in difficult circumstances, I’d advise a heart check. And apart from religion, just looking at it artistically, it makes for a great still life tableaux, and has inspired some truly beloved music. But as stage drama it has serious drawbacks, that I won’t go into here. Whereas Wonderful Life the movie, in spite of the sentimentality and Jimmy Stewart’s silliness at the end, remains eerily powerful in places. There’s a reason it’s a classic. So no, not the story.
No, oddly enough, it’s the acting. Wait a second, I’m not saying the Miami Little Theatre has terrible actors, while the children at my daughter’s tiny church are precocious prodigies. OBVIOUSLY, from a technical standpoint the acting was stronger in Miami.
What was different was a sense of the importance of what was happening onstage. For the adults, it was play, a Christmas chestnut, nothing you’d want to take too seriously. For reasons you are free to scoff at or criticize, the kids thought what they were doing was more important than that, and it showed.
To understand that, you have to know that there was minimal adult input in the ‘production.’ The kids had almost complete ownership of everything that went on onstage. The recorder choir wrote its own harmonies and arrangement; the props and set pieces were cut from cardboard, detailed with Sharpies, and (obviously) constructed by the cast. There were no stage managers pushing kids onstage for their entrances. The older kids (oldest 15) helped shepherd the little ones, but every child hit their marks, picked up their cues, and spoke their lines in a clear, enunciated voice without prodding. No pauses for dramatic effect or waiting for an entrance, no show offs, no flubbed lines or giggles.
What the hell? How can these kids do on their own what I spend 6 weeks with an adult cast working on?
The only thing I can figure out, is that they thought what they were doing was more serious than that, and too important to screw around with.
For the love of heaven, PLEASE don’t think I’m saying that Christians or religious people in general make better actors, because in my experience that has usually not been the case. The baggage that Christians carry (for good or for ill) sometimes gets in the way of them reaching their full potential onstage, though that is by no means true in all cases.
What I am saying is that people’s motivations matter. Doing it for yourself is not the same as doing it for the group. Doing it with your head is not the same as doing it with your heart. A reenactment is not the same as a creation.
Again, you will have your own ideas on church plays, church, kids and church, Jimmy Stewart, and me writing about my grandson. In fact, I invite you to share any of those ideas freely in the comments (this goes for any of my posts). Why should I have all the fun?
Thanks for reading.
“There is a certain immortality involved in theatre, created not by monuments or books, but through the knowledge an actor carries with him to his dying day that in an empty and dusty theatre, on a certain afternoon, he cast a shadow of a being that was not himself, but a distillation of everything he had ever thought or felt. All the un-singable heart songs that the ordinary man may feel but never utter he gave voice to and, by that, he somehow joins the ages.” Arthur Miller, quoted by Bill English on HowlRound. Read the full article here.
“The rise of the selfie has encouraged us to consider ourselves the star of every occasion. YouTube has enabled spectators to fancy themselves as performers.” Would that were true. Any theatre that drew in enough Millennials to make a dent in the current demographic would have a bronzed bust of its Marketing Director in the lobby ~ Jonathan Mastro.
I have a few thoughts on the topic (Shocker!) Shakespeare wrote his plays with audience reaction in mind. He knew there was going to be "inappropriate laughter", catcalls, belches, and people of both sexes urinating in the corners. And so he wrote his plays accordingly. Macbeth kills Duncan--ooh, heavy series of scenes. Better put a loudmouth drunk onstage and let people release those pent up emotions. Otherwise, everyone's going to get up and go to the bathroom at the same time, and that's always an awkward moment at the Globe (although waiting in line wasn't usually the problem).
My point being that playwrights don't write like that anymore. The expectations have changed. We expect everyone sitting up in their seats (check your posture!) and paying rapt attention to the exposition.
I kid, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's how most plays are written these days, and they're great. Sometimes. And on the whole, I'm glad we're not urinating in corners anymore. My socks get soggy.
But I do like a rollicking, raucous theatre experience. That's where we came from, even going back to the shamanic origins of our art form. Because the first 'plays' were freaky interactive, what with the chanting, the drums, smearing your body with goat's blood and ash, dancing spasmodically around a fire until you collapse onto the ground, gibbering like a monkey on mescaline, while your spirit-body converses with gods.
"How was the play?"
"It was OK. Zuul says hi."
I'd happily pay an online convenience fee for that show.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre