A Shared Sense of Purpose: My Journey to the Theatre
Recently, I asked myself why I chose theatre. It hit me that theatre has the same sense of hard work, storytelling, laughter, community, and purpose that developed me into who I am. These are such tangible things that theatre puts to use through the study and analysis that is involved in becoming a character, through the sharing of a physical space with the audience, through the presentation of a specific narrative that the audience is meant to emotionally relate to. I thought that I was moving away from my upbringing and into the world of art, but truthfully I found the lessons of my youth bound up in the world of the theatre. I appreciate that the elements of my childhood are lessons in how to achieve tangible results in life and in my work. That tangible work is part of the beauty of theatre.
When I was in college I had a personal epiphany: everything in life is about striving for beauty.
There are so many important qualities in the world: love, family, honesty, truth, faith, community, purpose, sympathy, empathy, goodness. The list is endless, and full of valuable qualities, that I believe represent the ways in which we are seeking out beauty in life.
Beauty encompasses so much more than the limited value we allow of the physical. Physical beauty could be a person, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph; all physical things. But I believe beauty is larger than that. Striving for a positive quality is, in my mind, striving to make yourself or the world a more beautiful place.
I was talking to a friend of mine who stated he believes the ultimate purpose of life is love. (If you’re going to pick a purpose in life that’s a really good one). When I asked him where things like anger, as in righteous anger of the kind that moves a nation to civil rights, sits within the scope of love, he said he felt like it was a form of love. But when I proposed that perhaps love is part of a larger element. Perhaps that desire for equality was a striving to make the world more beautiful. As we talked the conversation opened up, and suddenly love and anger could live inside the same expression.
Beauty is that; it is actionable. We can create beauty. We can promote beauty. We can expand our intentional behavior to encompass it as a regular part of our existence. Just start by looking for it.
To say my childhood in the farming country of central Alberta was lacking in the arts seems, at this point in my life, is like an understatement. There were no real art experiences in my home or my two-room schoolhouse. My mother did some dry flower arranging and my dad did some writing of religious devotionals, and I read books, but that’s about it. What we did have were projects: big, physical, sweaty tangible projects. Things like mowing lawns, dry-walling rooms, hauling vast quantities of wood and brush. Now that I have spent the last nine years of my life teaching theatre, I can look back and see that, though I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art specifically, many of the lessons I learned have found a home in the theatre.
That hard work of hauling vast amounts of wood is one example. I spent so much of my childhood receiving lessons in work ethic that the work has become second nature. I will never expect results without putting my shoulder down and making it happen. Once I have done the work, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. My childhood wasn’t all work, of course.
Storytelling was one of my favorite experiences. The people in my life, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and parents, would sit around and tell stories for hours. As the evening wore on, the stories became especially dramatic. They usually had to do with farming. It sounds like it should be as dull as a tractor driving back-and-forth cutting wheat or milking a cow, but the stories were always engaging. These men and women weren’t performers, but they knew innately how to craft a narrative and they would always go for the laugh.
Laughter was another constant part of life. To sit around with gruff farmers and laugh about someone driving the tractor straight into the giant pool of cow dung out behind the barn was hilarious. Laughing together was a shared experience that pulled us closer as a community.
My community was tight knit. It was family, it was farming, and it was faith. My mother’s cousin was my teacher. His four brothers were local dairy and wheat farmers. My grandfather was a beef rancher. My father was a minister (and wanna-be farmer). That meant we saw each other every Saturday morning for church, and every family dinner, and we all helped out with the harvest.
A shared sense of purpose might have been at the crux of my harvest experience. It takes a small army to swath, combine, load, deliver, and feed while harvest is happening. Yet everyone willingly pulled their weight and was attentive to the needs of the group. It was a collective identity, in which we all relied on each other to be successful. If we are talking about lessons from my childhood, a sense of purpose is the single most valuable thing I love about theatre.
Every time I set foot inside the theatre I feel that I’m participating in something that directly fulfills my striving to create beauty. I need it and I find that my students need it as well.
One great gift I can give my students is the opportunity to be part of something in which they are a necessity. Theatre, like no other art, takes a team to pull it off. When you teach at a small University with a multitude of volunteers, no understudies, and no major (we only have a minor), you can almost feel the need for ‘presence’ in your bones. It’s the first time some students feel that ‘sense of being valued.’
Many of my students enter Beginning Acting class with no intention of ever using it professionally. It’s an exciting experience for me to watch students, who give little credence to the art of acting, and find out how significantly it can benefit them. In my class I attempt to foster an environment of support and love. I feel it’s essential in my acting class because students must come to grips with who they are through self-discovery.
In order to become a character, you have to understand who you are. That can be a rough ride for some students. Once you have discovered who you are, you have to head down another road called self-acceptance.
Just this fall, a student came to me after her first scene and said that for the first time she felt truly alive. She felt it. It was beautiful.
I wish there was more of it available. I feel there can be at times a severe shortage of arts in the Christian community. My students are excited because they have found an outlet, but there seem to be so many who have not yet experienced the benefit of the arts. In our denomination I believe it comes from a strong push to follow certain other professions.
Our university is a liberal arts institution, affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Yet the humanities are the minority on campus compared with professional training in engineering, nursing, and pre-medicine. It is really a ‘playing out’ of an age-old struggle as the arts seek to find a place of value in the community. It can be difficult being an advocate for arts and seeing so much opportunity, especially in an institution that values empathy so highly in reflecting the character of Jesus Christ.
The ability of theatre to create empathy in both the performer and the audience is unparalleled. That is a key component to the character of Christ that students at this university desire.
As to my part in helping these students, I teach in acting class that they must work to play their character without judgment. The moment they begin judging their character they lose the objectivity necessary to capture an inner life. All actors must find the essence of the character and live that character on the stage. It’s a constant struggle to find the truth of each moment during a performance. When they have captured those moments of truth, then they’re able to share them with an audience and in doing so, give the audience an understanding of someone else’s narrative.
In my mind there is nothing more Christian than sharing that gift of empathy. Though I will be the first to admit, that in the academic theatre there are hits and there are misses, the only way to discover them is to keep putting students ‘on the board’ in front of audiences. In time, they will learn what it means to tell a story that is both beautiful and tangible.
I cannot say that everyone – students and alumni – think of theatre in the same vein as I do. In fact, I can very clearly say some do not, because theatre is a still a contested art in the denomination at large. Yet I came from the same background as many of my students and found theatre as a world of story-telling and character and beauty, I find my closest connection to Christ. I believe Christ is available in this art.
So I continue to work hard and use the lessons of tangibility in my childhood to share theatre with students and community. I do it because I feel it is valuable for me, not to just tell a story, but to show it.
I continue to strive for beauty, and especially the tangible beauty of theatre, that I can share with the world. If my students can take these ideas and use them to influence others, the world may just become a more beautiful place. 2016.
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
DAVID CRAWFORD is the director of Drama at Walla Walla University. Since 1961, Walla Walla University’s Drama Department’s rich tradition has grown into two facilities and a full season of performances including two main stage productions throughout the year, and an annual student-directed Festival of One-Acts.