For “This I Believe” . . .

As many of you know, NPR has been running a series of personal essays/statements every Monday for the past while on “Morning Edition” called “This I Believe.” It’s based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, which was hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

As I’ve listened to the stirring, often inspiring essays each week, I’ve been inspired. I love the historical connection between the series’ first incarnation and the present, and I admire the opportunity it provides to speak publicly about faith and belief in a secular forum.

My latest book is an extended argument about my own faith in the power of theatre to change people’s lives by letting us feel, together, what a better world might be like if we could share the moments of wonder and even love that often temporarily bind us together at the theatre.

So I decided I’d like to share my thoughts in the “This I Believe” forum.

The hardest thing about writing the essay was trying to capture in a few words how much performance means to me and the belief I hold in its power for all of us. But crystallizing your thoughts, though difficult, is always gratifying. And the possibility that your ideas might be shared with others makes it all worthwhile. (I’ve felt this keenly for this last year, writing this blog.)

Since I don’t know if my essay will be selected for broadcast, I’m sharing it here. I encourage you to comment and to share your own beliefs if you’d like (I’ve reenabled the “comments” function on the blog, which was mysteriously turned off for the last month).

Thanks, as usual, for reading.

I Believe . . .

in the transformative power of performance. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I took acting classes that allowed me to transcend the constraints of my daily life at school and at home. By trying on various characters, I experimented with who I might become.

At fourteen, I played the dowager Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals, costumed in a heavily draped dress with an excessively long train, wearing a stuffed bluebird as decoration in my wig. I loved the fun of pronouncing her ill-chosen words and the laughs I got kicking that train around the stage.

At the theatre, my life as a solitary, introspective teenager was brightened by the stage lights and became, most importantly, communal.

Although I’ve long since stopped performing, I remain a committed spectator. I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.

I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.

A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.

Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.

I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.

I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.

Yours, believing,
The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

6 thoughts on “For “This I Believe” . . .

  1. Thank you for sharing your belief that we find hope in the theatre. I feel those “communal” moments sometimes at the theatre though I’m never sure what alchemy produces them or why–thankfully– they aren’t discriminatory of even amateur productions.

    Why, for example, would a low budget local Austin production, staffed with volunteer stagehands and amateur actors, sometimes move me to these moments of profound affect but not always a lavish, New York production I pay $70 (or more) to see?

    Tonight, for example, some friends and I saw a production of West Side Story produced by Summer Stock Austin ( The large cast is comprised of high school and college actors who spent their summer learning about theatre production, and gaining valuable stage experience by mounting three shows that run on alternating days.

    Many of the leading actors in West Side Story are exceptionally talented musically, able to carry its difficult score even despite a weak orchestra. The fledgling chorus of Jets and Sharks were sometimes awkward, prone to over-acting and drifted in and out of Bronx and Puerto Rican accents. I expected as much and didn’t care. I wasn’t expecting anything remotely professional. I went to support educational theatre, to see a spotlight beam down on these artist-students who had dedicated their summer to sharpening their craft and sharing their artistry.

    I wasn’t expecting to be touched by this production, but I was. I cried on three occasions during the show. The audience around me was similarly affected; we literally felt with one another. We gasped together. Cried together. Shared moments I find difficult to express in words.

    They were moments akin to those portrayed in the final scenes of “Shakespeare in Love”, when the first-ever production of Romeo and Juliet is staged, despite what seemed insurmountable odds right up until Juliet’s entrance. A connection between the audience and the actors is forged; the dichotomy between them becomes more fluid, and at times blurred. For example, when Juliet awakes from her state of suspended animation in the final act, an audience member shouts to her, “He [Romeo] is dead!” By the end of the show, the audience is so riveted by the tragic love story, they are left speechless, momentarily paralyzed causing them to delay their applause several long seconds after the actors take a bow.

    Last night, at the Moody Northen Theatre, we were similarly affected. But why? After all, we knew the fates of Tony and Maria long before we entered the theatre doors. For my friends and I, these characters were etched into our memories of freshman English class when our high school teachers taught Romeo and Juliet along side a VHS recording of West Side Story. My own theatre going further acquainted me to these characters in a production whose Equity chorus members could have stepped into any of the show’s leading roles at a moment’s notice. Yet their production failed to affect me; it didn’t seem as fulfilling or as personal as the experience I shared last night with fellow audience members, all of us seated around a mostly bare stage, absorbed in this familiar tale that has been retold a thousand different ways.

    Why should I be so affected? If pressed to answer that now, I’d have to say this production seemed so human, so full of heart. Certain moments portrayed on-stage took on the qualities of a real-life moment. It was sometimes broken, but the actors understood their intentions so well that by the second act, they weren’t just staging West Side Story: they were engaged in the real-life moments of these characters and we, the audience, sat captive unable to turn our eyes away from tragedy unfolding before us. We wanted to stop the inevitable conclusion, but were helpless to do so.

    Watching tragedy unfold is something I’ve had too much experience with these days, whether it is watching the collapse of the Twin Towers (now getting more replay in recent films), the helpless victims of a flooded New Orleans, the senseless death and destruction in Iraq, the car wreck I saw on my way to UT this morning, or the homeless persons I see daily on street corners. I see, yet through the perspective of a comfortable seat, a privileged spectator—a status that makes me feel too comfortable and complacent at times.

    Perhaps I connected to this production because it was the first time I’ve seen West Side Story since being in love and could finally relate to the feelings Tony and Maria shared. Perhaps it was because I could equate the “rumble” between the Jets and Sharks with broader world conflicts over turf and oil that have only heightened the xenophobia that further divides an alienates us. Perhaps it was because when I heard “Somewhere” it was a somewhere I could hope for, even imagine, though I know that somewhere is an impossibility. Perhaps it was a young cast whose performance helped me to see more clearly the events surrounding our lives, and of who we might become for better or worse. Perhaps is it all these things. Or perhaps—as the character Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love repeatedly says concerning the mystical happenings in theatre: “It’s a mystery!”

  2. i too have been inspired by the program, and have speculated about what my essay would look like. thank you for sharing your insights.
    i recently found out about your blog, and i look forward to reading more.

  3. Hi there,

    I’ve come to this post quite late- I actually printed it out and only just found it again in my files. I’m a PhD candidate in Sydney, Australia. My project is all about the transformational potential of performance- I’m trying to get inside the notion of transformation as I know it occurs, and like you, have experienced it myself, but little has been written about it in academic discourse. It’s interesting that you mention moments of magic or mysticism, as I’m using alchemy as an overarching metaphor for transformation in the thesis as well.

    I still need to find your latest book- I’ll get my library to buy it!- but it sounds like an important thing to read for my thesis. I have read other articles and books of yours and find myself consistently agreeing with, and being insired by, your ideas.

    The first comment here is also great, I love how both of you pick on specific examples of performances that have changed you and describe their affect. This is also what I’m trying to do in my project.

    All the best, and thanks again,

    Tessa Needham

  4. Your apt comments on the value of performance mirrors my experience. As a costumer, I spend much of my time with adolescents in theatre classes, fitting costumes, working to get their image just right for the character.
    My chief excitement is in seeing the cast members brighten and change when they are dressed for their parts.
    This is especially true of the students who, perhaps for socio-economic reasons, have had little opportunity to explore their ability for self-expression through costume. It is another way the performing arts programs in the public schools are building our students in ways that no test can measure.

  5. I played Bernardo in that production! I was just randomly googling it and came across this post! It’s extremely gratifying to know that something I was a part of, even if only in a small way, could have such an affect on even just one person. Thanks!

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