Thoughts on Theatre

Dear Friends,

Summary

I love the theatre. My love for the theatre may initially have been kindled at the Dom Polski(1) to which my parents frequently dragged me along as a child. My mother played the piano. My Dad built impressive scenery for the amateur stage performances. (Nothing he ever built was as awe-inspiring as the ornate wheeled sleigh that was used at Christmas time. The sleigh was beautiful. It was big enough and sturdy enough to carry Swięty Mikołaj(2) and up to three hefty assistants, were they called for. My Dad’s sleigh would have humbled any of today’s sub-compact automobiles.)

Performing seasonal skits and especially musicals seemed to be particularly important for the Polish immigrants. It gave them a chance to vicariously recall their more carefree past and hopefully give expression to their aspirations for the future. At Easter, women old and young, dressed in make-believe costumed finery strutted on the stage singing “In My Easter Bonnet”, which is something they’d never have sung (or worn) in their war-torn homeland. I recall wondering why such a bright song never failed to bring a tear to their eyes.

Detail

Go ahead. Invite me to a Stage Play, Reading, Puppet Show, Mumenshanz, Kamichibai, Opera, Home Play, Magicians, Balinese Shadow Puppets, Musical, Kabuki, Cabaret, Circus, Operetta, Monologue… and I’m “in.” Judging from the length of this spontaneously-generated list, I must not be alone in responding to the allure of the theatre.

Theatre is often described as that place where one “suspends belief.” I prefer the positive description. Theatre is a place where one chooses to adopt the action of a different time and place and experiences it with the intensity of emotion, empathy and amazement as if one were really present there… wherever “there” might be.

I’m blessed with a vivid and active imagination. One of the things I dislike about books-turned-into-movies is that what is portrayed on the screen is the product of someone else’s imagination. The screen rendition rarely matches up with my own imagination, and seldom lives up to mine.

In an earlier age, its possible I might have been diagnosed as mildly autistic. I found it difficult to focus on one task, alone, because there were so many alternative and interesting things with which to be involved. Perhaps I found the theatre appealing because everything about it facilitates focusing only on what is happening on the stage. That made it a bit easier not to be distracted.

As an actor(3) what I enjoyed most was the ability to “try out” different persona and see how I liked them. I could experience how a character I portrayed might have felt and reacted to a situation, and compare that to how I might have felt and reacted to the same situation. In the comparison I learned about my character but I also learned about myself.

The Church has long recognized the important beneficial aspects of theatre. It has seamlessly incorporated many theatrical qualities in its liturgy. It is right that it has done so. For when mere mortals come into proximity with the mysteries of the Sacraments or approach the Altar where the salvific sacrifice is recreated, it is helpful to clothe oneself with the ancient, dignified and comforting cloak of vesture, color, procession, chant, and precious vessels. These embrace the worshiper in a humble protective mantle. At the same time, we are thus invited to enter into a different dimension, relationship and reality. Liturgical drama is a profound application of the best of theatre to the deepest of spiritual experience.

I’m thinking about the theatre because some people ask me how I can remain so blasé in the face of my life-threatening cancer. I don’t know how to answer such a question because I certainly don’t feel blasé about it, even though I’m happy to say that I am in a very calm period after the Christmas surgery that removed two errant tumors, that is called “watchful waiting”. What such questioners observe must surely have something to do with what I’ve learned from the theatre.

An actor typically plays a role. Good actors so invest themselves in the persona of the character whose role they undertake, they study and pick up their character’s mannerisms, stutters, glances and gestures. They remain “in character” even during breaks in rehearsals, and sometimes long into “real life.” They are not the person they are portraying, but they so much desire to be authentic in their portrayal, they almost become a simulacrum of the original person. This is obviously beneficial and is a determining factor, I daresay, in the awarding of many an Oscar.

I find something akin to taking on a persona, similarly beneficial on a personal level. I don’t always possess the disposition I would like to own. Sometimes I feel irritable. Sometimes I feel depressed. Sometimes I feel scared. Who doesn’t experience a range of such emotions, particularly when confronted with something strange and threatening like cancer? I would never counsel anyone to hide or deny the presence of such feelings. Indeed, it is well worth experiencing such feelings; and often worth reflecting upon them. But I don’t feel inclined, at all times, to share such feelings with others (nor to subject others to my feelings without permission).

In those cases, it is useful for me to “robe myself” with a more positive persona. I do not deceive others by taking on this mantle. The persona I adopt is authentically me, all the while. The odd thing is that in robing myself in such a way I find it often coaxes my disposition to change. From irritability comes calm. From depression emerges hopefulness. From fright, prayerful resignation from fear. This modification… assuming an aspect I would like to possess, seems to me to be associated in some way with prayerfulness… or is even one answer to a prayer. One aspect of prayer can be to help me become the person I want to be—even if, at the moment of praying, being that person eludes me. Taking on the mantle of the person I want to be… or taking on the attitudes and behaviors I wish to possess, in this semi-theatrical way, might, in fact, be an effective way for me to move more gingerly towards my goal. I believe I’ve seen others use this technique; it may be a universal benefit that can be applied by anyone.

Perhaps this was the unsuspected lesson I was absorbing from my childhood experiences at the Dom Polski. Perhaps, too, it is significant that I should particularly recall the dark recesses of the back of the stage where I could observe, unseen, the people in the skits, and the dancers on the dance floor. What I saw, were two contrasting demeanors: the often frightened, often depressed, often penniless, often worried adults in the room, who, despite their travails, displayed only brightness, good cheer and confident friendliness, especially when they sang their songs and performed in the skits I found so captivating. The huge majority of those “play actors” became the distinguished, admirable and loving people who mentored me and whom I admired as I entered my young adulthood and continue to admire to this day.

The lesson they taught me was far more important than I easily recognized.

Chet

(1) “Dom Polski” literally means “Polish home”. It is the name of a social club in San Francisco for immigrant Polish families to gather. It still stands on 22nd Street near Mission. These days, the immigrants meeting at the Dom Polski are likely from Latin America. But the importance of gathering together in linguistic harmony and to bask in welcome hospitality, is no less valuable today for the groups gathering there, than it was for the groups that preceded them.

I feel I spent so much time at the Dom Polski as a youngster that my spirit must still be flitting about, from the coatcheck room (where I often earned small pocket change, hanging up coats and scarves) to the library and meeting rooms upstairs, to the stage and dance floor and, of course, to the dark recesses of the back of the stage from where I could observe, unseen, all the people on the stage or on the dance floor, below.

(2) Swięty Mikołaj = St. Nicholas

(3) At Riordan High School I was active on the Speech and Debate Team, and played the role of Buckingham in Shakespeare’s Richard III. I also had a stage part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My never-to-be-forgotten stage opportunity came when, in my Senior Year, I won the lead for the King and I. So dedicated was I, that I agreed to completely shave my head for the part! During the intermissions, I needed to apply a lighter shade of pancake cosmetic to my bald head because I’d have developed a “5 o’clock shadow” during the first act. In my adult career, I have been privileged to conduct various classes at the university level, both here and abroad. Teaching, too, benefits from an occasional bit of dramatic or theatrical flair.

The Goodness of Creation and Cancer

“Perhaps you have noticed

that even in the very lightest breeze

you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree;

this we understand is it’s prayer to the Great Spirit;

for not only men, but all things

and all beings pray to Him continually

in differing ways.”

Dear Friends,

Summary

It is doubtful that the philosopher/anthropologist, Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit whose books I read in college, would ever have encountered the quotation, above, which is attributed to the Lakota Native-American, Black Elk [ca 1863-1950]. Teilhard [1881-1955] could have, since he and Black Elk were almost exact contemporaries.

Detail

I can just imagine what kind of conversation Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin might have enjoyed had they met. Teilhard would certainly have endorsed Black Elk’s prayerful insight. Black Elk would have appreciated the lyric phrase the priest used when he posited that all creation “groaned” for the fulfillment of its highest potential.

For Teilhard, the “highest potential,” simply put, was that all creation, animate and inanimate, yearned to render to its Creator whatever was its most appropriate acknowledgement for its very existence.  Black Elk would have understood.

Teilhard also conceptualized a more obscure notion about human consciousness. He predicted a time in the future when there would emerge a “noösphere.” This was a point in time at which human consciousness—across the globe—would somehow become fully integrated and would “converge” as the consciousness of all earthly creation. Such an insight lifted the idea of the interrelatedness of all creation from a commonplace, to a higher level; one when all creation—through the consciousness of humanity—could more completely acknowledge itself as the loving, completely coherent community that was generated and intended by the Creator.

These ideas were heady matter (and inspiring reading) for an idealistic college student of the 60’s. The boldly optimistic image of creation seeking its highest aspiration remains with me, even today.

I remain attracted to the concept that all creation is naturally driven towards achieving its highest potential. I’m attracted to the thought that the human species aims towards the convergence (not dilution) of individuals in a loving community and that humans potentially bring to creation, itself, conscious awareness.

The first is already evidenced, in the biological realm, by the evolutionary push of natural selection (even as it was perceived and originally hinted at by Charles Darwin). Science, and the Church, is slowly discerning a richer understanding of the processes that allow biological species to evolve and adapt to different environmental conditions, perfecting their abilities in the process. We are beginning to see the truth of Black Elk’s understanding, that all of creation, in its distinctive unique way, acknowledges the intentions of its Creator.

The second is in a far different realm. It requires more of us than simply being a part of creation. Scientists do not yet undertand the mysteries of the human mind. They might well be skeptical that minds can communicate in a way that might activate a noösphere. Nevertheless, there are already suggestions of what Teilhard imagined, in the way people all over the world are, for example, using technology to converge more closely… or how peoples of diverse cultures are building communities that are already linked to each other through prayerful awareness. Both types of activity are required, and both examples are already building-up a global consciousness.

Open Source software has made it possible for the world’s software engineers to interact with each other when writing programming code. This is an impressive application of technology in support of human collaboration. It has enabled rapid advances in solving sophisticated mathematical and scientific problems. One result of such work is that there now exist enormous databases of algorithmic code snippets that can be used, freely, by anyone to build even more sophisticated computer programs.

Another example of the way human aspirations are already linked—even over great geographic distances—is the way social networking tools are influencing the geopolitical and social evolutions that are taking place in diverse corners of the world.

Prayerful communities exist on every continent. To the extent that they are genuinely seeking an understanding of our relationship with the Creator, our relationship to one another or our role in creation, they represent an important stage of convergence.

Admittedly, these are very crude examples that only dimly hint at the noösphere. But they help me imagine, in tangible ways, what is otherwise obscure to me in Teilhard’s use of the term “convergence.”

Whether or not I understand its details, what seems clear to me is that we humans live—as I believe the Creator intended us to live—in an existential reality of perpetual potential.

Fulfilling my potential properly, and to the extent possible for me, is my life’s challenge. Our collective success in doing so (or lack of it) is continually reflected in the evolutionary history of our species.

This is a buoyant understanding and joyous response to the goodness of creation. “God saw, and God saw that it was good.”

Which brings me to a conundrum.  What about my cancer?  What role does it play in this good creation?

My cancer is undeniably adept. Scientists believe that the genetic mutations that characterize cancer cells have co-evolved with human beings for millennia. Put another way, cancer cells, genetically speaking, seem to have co-existed in human beings—maybe even required us for their evolution—right alongside the countless “ordinary” cells that give my body its corporeal reality. My cancer is, in this sense, already fully a part of me at my birth.

What we don’t know about cancer would fill the world’s libraries. What we observe, is nothing less than astonishing.

Cancer has developed an ability to avoid the body’s impressive immune system. Cancer can overcome the body’s natural defenses so it can engage in its chosen activity pretty much unrestrained. Cancer adapts itself, specifically, to the environment of different individuals. Each person’s cancer seems largely to be customized to that person (making generalized remedies difficult to achieve). Cancer cells have been successful in overriding the natural cellular ageing process that governs the duration of functionality in “ordinary” cells. Cancer cells have an unrestrained capacity for replication and life.

In many objective ways, cancer can be admired for its manifold adaptations to its environments… except for the fact that what cancer cells have evolved to do—combined with their unbridled life goal—is counterproductive to the life of my own body. Is it just that these particular cells are “out of order”? Is my cancer which has such a long pedigree essentially bad or evil? Is the cancer in my body there for any other reason than to harm me?

None of these questions are easy to answer. What appears to be the case, however, is that these cells have “learned” several techniques about living in my body. Scientists could well learn a lot from understanding what and how they employ those techniques. Indeed, it is also likely that in such learning, not only will researchers be able to design a method to contain and restrict the harmful effects of cancerous activity; they might well learn important processes and methodologies that could be used to enhance the life of persons with other kinds of illnessess and maladies.

These three trains of thought are very satisfying to me in a time of uncertainty and discouragement:

• Creation is an intended initiative of a Creator. Creation is, by definition good. “…and God saw that it was good.” Creation’s natural response to being created is to acknowledge the Creator by naturally striving to be the highest fulfillment of the Creator’s intention. So far as we can tell, only we humans have a choice in this matter.

• The apparently unique gift of humanity is our intellectual capacity, our self-referential awareness as created beings and our ability to choose to direct ourselves towards fulfilling our own special potential. When we do this we do so in concert with all creation, but perhaps also on behalf of creation through our collective manifestation of consciousness.

• In aspiring to act humanly, we can build a community of awareness that can activate our collective potential. This requires a humble attitude of love and recognition of each other’s created brotherhood and sisterhood. It also requires a studied and felt concentrated consciousness of our particular and potential role in creation.

In trying to express this carefully, my words sound pedantic, somewhat abstract and theoretical. In fact, to recognize the goodness of all creation, and to recognize that I can choose to fulfill my role within creation to the best of my ability, represents something joyful and exuberant.

Perhaps one way to understand it is the converse of the way I have previously described our dog, Gracie. I previously wrote that Gracie provides for me unstinting loyalty and constant affection and that she takes me out for health-restoring walks. I get an inkling of what I am to do with respect to creation when I provide food, water and shelter for Gracie. I see my different role vis-a-vis Gracie, particularly when I take her out for a walk, all the while anticipating traffic, watching for potentially aggressive animals on the path and somehow orchestrating her experience to bring Gracie delight. I do this through my conscious attentiveness. I should employ this same attentiveness to all creation around me. But its never a one-way activity; such attentiveness seems always to consist in a reciprocal appreciation of life. Perhaps this mystery is best prefigured by the exuberant prayer of one who pre-dated both Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin. He wrote a long song whose structure  reads as follows:

Praised be You with all Your creatures…

…especially Sir Brother Sun…

…through Sister Moon and the Stars…

…through Brothers Wind and Air…

…through Sister Water…

…through Brother Fire…

…through our Sister Mother Earth…

…producing varied fruits and colored flowers…

 

 

Chet