Friday, June 12, 2009

Bathed in Light

Back in 1992, when I was studying at what was then known as The Diocesan School of Theology, we were invited -- as part of a course on Anglican history -- to participate in imaginary debates between renowned Anglican theologians.

As a long-time mystery lover, I was a HUGE fan of Dorothy Sayers (she still reigns as my favorite mystery writer of all time) and I had always been intrigued by the fact that she was also well-known for her treatises on Anglican spirituality. So I volunteered to be Dorothy Sayers in one of these imaginary debates.

She was known to be a large, rather mannish woman, so I arrived at the debate dressed in one of my husband's suits, with a white button-down oxford-cloth shirt, a tie, an old felt fedora, and a pillow stuffed under the shirt to add some girth. I remember sitting down between the two men who were to debate with me -- we had discussed our topics (and dress) beforehand -- and I remember my voice dropped in an odd way, as if it were coming out of my chest, and I felt sort of... bigger... and that's all I remember. I don't remember what I said, or even what her theology was: all I know is that afterwards my classmates told me it was as if I had channeled Dorothy Sayers and she spoke through me. And if I stop for a second and think about it, I can still remember the odd sensation I had at the time of being sort of ... filled.

I had never been on stage at that point in my life (with the exception of one brief role as the spirit of death in a seventh grade version of Snow White), and it wasn't until some 10 years later that I began taking roles in local theater productions, so it wasn't that I was acting, or had any acting experience. And, though I am an adequate performer, I can safely say that I have never been that fully immersed in a performance since that odd experience back in 1992.

But last night I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at our local theater, and what I saw was a whole stage full of performers who were as completely taken over by their characters as I had been by Dorothy Sayers. It was absolutely awe-inspiring, breathtaking, amazing, and I -- who have been on a theatrical hiatus since I dropped out of Once Upon a Mattress for my dying cat last fall -- finally "got" that good theater can be so much more than actors and costumes and stage sets and egos and memorizing and stage fright and makeup and all the other bits and pieces that make up the theater experience.

Good theater can break an audience -- and an actor -- wide open, help them see in a new way, experience in a new way, think in a new way -- even breathe as if from someone else's chest; awakening a unique awareness of what it might be like to be living someone else's life. Good theater, I now see, is so much more than entertainment: it is a unique opportunity to spill compassion into the souls of unsuspecting viewers. And I felt, last night, watching these perfectly ordinary men -- many of whom are friends of mine -- as awestruck by the depth of their performances as this statue of St. Francis, from a wall in Assisi. It was almost like watching God: for that brief period, it felt like we were bathed in light.

1 comment:

karengberger said...

So glad that you saw it and enjoyed it deeply. The Vagina Monologues did this for me. That is one powerful piece of performance art.