Sunday, July 23, 2006

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 (see

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