Theatre is a catalyst for community. At the awards banquet of the Virginia Theatre Association’s annual 2018 Conference, speaker after speaker looked out on the thousand-faced sea of teenage thespians and exhorted them to look around at their fellows in the room. These are the people who sweat with you through the glaring light of tech rehearsals, they said, the people who run lines with you during free periods, the people who help you move that ramshackle bed to the stage right entrance at the top of Act Three. These are your castmates, your scene partners, your family. Over and over again: this is your family. These are your people. And the teenaged sea roared its approval, and the speakers themselves were moved to tears as the crashing waves spilled forth the few dozen kids who won awards by name not as shipwrecked survivors of some great tempest but as representatives of something larger than themselves, of the team effort required to lift them up for recognition.
Theatre is a major endeavor: a project with many moving parts, that requires planning and attention and preparation and rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. It requires both a microscopic examination of minute details and the wide-angle lens of the big-picture view. In this, theatre is like any other major human endeavor—sports, war, government—that requires the cooperation of many people in the coordination of many moving parts. And just like sports, war, and government, theatre has the remarkable ability to bring a whole lot of very different people into the same room at the same time for the same reason. Unlike sports, war, or government, however, the goal of theatre is not to divide the people in that room into winners and losers. Instead, the goal of theatre is to create a shared experience that everyone can not only survive, but also benefit from having experienced.
Everyone who participated in the creation of theatre ends up changed by it. This was as true in the banquet hall at VTA as it was in the Blackfriars Playhouse the night of Monday, December 3 when the families and friends of two dozen Staunton students came together to Share the Light of the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre.
Let me set the scene for you: three different performances by three very different theatrical groups and many different kinds of students. They ranged in age from 8 to 18, attended different schools (some public, some independent, others homeschooled) with different attitudes and styles. They brought three very different performances with them: students from the Stuart Hall School devised their own traditional British-style panto, a genre involving over-the-top audience interaction in its satirical, hilarious telling of well-known fairy tales (in this case, Sleeping Beauty) that feels tailor-made for the “we do it with the lights on” style of the Blackfriars.
Not to be outdone in their site-specific use of the building, the students of Lee Drama created a totally different original piece: a time-traveling murder mystery using every ounce of performative space the Playhouse would allow, with crazy revelations about increasingly tawdry (and absurd) affairs flying over the heads of the audience from all angles until the true murderer was revealed.
And to round out the evening, the participants of the ASC Drama Club performed three scenes from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in which absolutely nothing hilarious, absurd, or ridiculous happens (except for the guy getting eaten by that bear and when that statue comes to life).
The audience for the evening was a crowd of about 150, primarily friends and family of the performers, gathered to watch the fruits of their labor. Many of them had never been to the Blackfriars Playhouse before. All of them got to see their child, friend, sibling, etc. perform as part of a larger piece—moving their bodies in space in relation to others’, timing their words in relation to others’, sharing the constant calculation of when and how to move with the concurrent calculations being done by their castmates—and at the end of the evening, all of them stayed with us in the room as all the students and their teachers came together on the stage and lit a pair of candelabras together, the ever-burning lights of the Playhouse slowly fading to black as we shared, instead, the lights of the candles. The sea of faces surrounding those candles became a community that hadn’t existed before, but has the ability now to exist forever: a community catalyzed into creation by the act of theatre.
Community will always need upkeep for its survival. It’s something we dream into being together and must likewise maintain together. But all a community needs for its formation is people in a room together in pursuit of a common experience. Theatre provides that opportunity and paves the way for more. Once we establish the community, we all stand to benefit from within it.