Some help with the “whys”

In my inbox the other day was an email soliciting nominations for the Grad Center’s Booth award—an award the doctoral students give to an individual or organization that has had a “significant impact on theatre and performance in New York” in both academic and professional capacities. As you might imagine, it’s a rather eclectic group of honorees.

The person I immediately thought of—and really the only person I can still think of— is Zelda Fichandler, former chair of NYU’s Grad Acting program and prior to that artistic director of Arena Stage. A really phenomenal woman– intelligent, ambitious, articulate, curious, but also overwhelmingly kind. A rather humbling combination. When I started the program her age was beginning to be a factor, so she was perhaps not as involved as she might have been for previous cohorts, but she was a presence nonetheless. Every year at our first meeting she gave these amazing, gorgeous speeches about why we pursue theatre—speeches intended to get you through the tough times of grad school, and later the tough times of a difficult profession.  We all looked forward to her speeches, they inspired you to believe in what you were doing. Throughout the years I’ve gone back to her words and found them to be no less meaningful than they were when I first heard them.

As I’ve been embarking upon a new program/direction/etc I’ve been thinking about the “why’s” a lot. Why continue with theatre, why pursue scholarship? It’s already very clear that this will be a rigorous journey ending in a job market that by all accounts is not the most hospitable. Looking at my calendar for the coming months, I’ve been feeling like I need a little Zelda in my life.

So I’ve excerpted a few sections from one of her best. Though do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. If you want to be cynical about it you could maybe argue that she is feeding into the mythology of theatre and the arts—the mythology that our old friend Abbing considers to be why we have more artists willing to make more sacrifices than a functioning economy can sustain. But I don’t particularly feel like being cynical right now, and I do think that no matter what career you choose, a little mythology can be quite helpful.

This is from a speech/article called “The Lying Game”—about the actor, audience, and the “conspiracy of belief” they enter into together.

She starts with the problem:

But seriously, why does someone want to become an actor? To enter that arena with the lions and subject oneself to rejection on a regular basis? To chance the masochism of love for a profession that makes no promise to love you back? To risk a life of temping and maybe even poverty? To postpone having a committed relationship or raising a family? Why in the world would you even dream of becoming an actor, let alone audition for a graduate acting program—running up a debt that not only means you’ll go without steak dinners and dental work, but that could define your choices until you’re almost middle-aged?

Then she talks about the expansive possibilities of acting—possibilities that I think might apply to any sort of investigative curiosity outside of oneself:

Each of us is given but one life: the life of a fly measured against eternity. That life might seem to us to be a free one in terms of choice and possibility. In limited ways it is, but in major ways it is quite determined. Chromosomes decide our sex, the color of our skin and eyes, our bone structure, our predisposition to certain talents and tastes and even to the illnesses that ultimately will whisk us away. The one life we have is determined, too, by how the knobs of inherited characteristics are turned by the culture into which we happen to be born.

Do we want to be hemmed in by one fate? Especially for a creature with high imagination, who is naturally empathetic, curious and daring, is one life enough? I think the sense of the possibilities of other lives within us propels some of us to want be part of the maddening, glorious world of theatre.

Then she gets into the actor’s mission, which she views as repairing the world through compassion:

The ultimate companion of mankind should be com-passion, “feeling with.” That message threads through the body of Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps even if you were a Jew, you could find a way to play a Palestinian suicide bomber, depending on how far you could stretch that ability to feel with. Would you choose to play him—or her—as a crazy? An uncultured bandit? You could, surely. Or you could play him as someone who has not received from life what he has expected, has seen atrocity, who looks at this singular act of terror as an “instant of courage,” as it is propagandized by his society. If you choose to play him this way, you would find support in Mahmoud Darwish‘s “Psalm 11”: “Nothing remains for me / but to inhabit your voice that is my voice.”

I don’t know if you would want to undertake this role. But if you did, and chose to play the character from his own point of view, you would have the opportunity to open the mind of the audience to a different, and perhaps to them dangerous, way of looking at a reality they thought they already knew. You would give them sight into an alien soul. Tikkun olam: in Hebrew, “to repair the world.” We are the only animal who strives to do that. In my view, that is the specific creative mission of the actor.

And finally her personal “why” and the “conspiracy of belief:”

 I think the following is my “why” for sustaining a life in the theatre for over half a century. It’s about the audience: my friends and neighbors; the visitors of different colors; the despairing who lead tight, circumscribed lives; the rich and comfortable who in the dark may experience guilt and the rich and comfortable whose hunger can never be assuaged; the wide-eyed children in their one good dress; the lonely one in a single seat; the Masons in their funny hats; the cognizant and the non-knowing; the old who can forget about dying for a few hours; the egoists; the damned; the teenagers who under their bravado and with rings in every part of their anatomy yearn to be useful. The Audience, the terminus of all our work. God bless them all.

They enter into a conspiracy of belief with us, and it would not be moral to betray them. I called what we do a game, and I don’t take it back. But it’s a game with stakes higher than any other game I know. It’s not about getting the shuttlecock over the net or about having your foot on the plate, more important even than flirting to snag that handsome guy at the buffet table. This quirky game is also an elaborate deception, prepared over months and years. We must admit theatre is a lying game, and actors lie to play it. But they are lies designed to trap the truth, and the more convincing they are, the deeper the truth that is exposed.

A conspiracy of belief, I said, and we mustn’t disappoint. We have to believe in the imaginative world with everything we’ve got. But, I remind you, that belief has to stop just short of falling into the orchestra pit, or, as Medea, howling in anguish on the street outside the theatre after you’ve killed your children, drawing the police with your cries and jeopardizing tomorrow’s sold-out matinee. Just short of this formless excess must we play out our “as ifs.” If the actor can contain herself just below the level of the truth, she has an opportunity to reach a supra-truth and move us to understand the un-understandable—that a woman’s feelings of rage and abandonment could be so ravenous as to lead her to destroy what she loves. Theatre does indeed fabricate everything from the storm’s roar to the lark’s song, from the actor’s laughter to her nightly flood of tears. That actor may nevertheless construct a vision of the human condition that opens us to a new understanding of ourselves. What could be more important than that?

So I said some excerpts. That was maybe more than you bargained for. But it’s lovely no?



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