actor, Altar, autism, blasé, Cabaret, Circus, demeanor, depressed, disposition, Dom Polski, focus, imagination, immigrants, irritable, Kabuki, Kamichibai, liturgy, Magicians, Monologue, Mumenshanz, Musicals, Opera, Operettas, persona, role, Sacraments, scared, Shadow Puppets, spiritual dimension, stage, Stage Play, suspend belief, theater, theatre
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.
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.
(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.