In was in my first “dramatics” textbook that I read about the shared origins of drama and religion. “The Stage and the School” by Katharine Anne Ommanney. Copyright 1932, 1939,1950 and 1960. Some of the illustrations were photos taken by Louise Phillips at Jefferson High School, where I was so involved as a student. I’m not in any of the photos; however, my drama teacher, Melba Day Sparks, was in several of them. She had a shirt striped like an umpire’s shirt and she was very tall, once a Powers model, so glamorous for a high school teacher. She made it clear that she had a union card for backstage work, which enabled her to legally paper her office with black wallpaper imprinted with bright masks of tragedy and comedy.
In the Fifties Portland, Oregon, was sort of gray, but not in the new performance wing of Jefferson High school. (There was an outstanding orchestra and several choirs.) The stage, designed by Sparks, met professional standards. I was convinced that it was at the center of the universe. It came as a shock to understand that when you graduated, you had to leave. “Where are you going to college?” they all wanted to know.
I went to Mrs. Sparks and asked her. Melba Day attended Northwestern University in the days when the scene shop was down at the beach in an old shed. I picked up a brick from there and slipcovered it with felt to give her as a memento doorstop. She didn’t like AK -- too harsh. (She hadn’t picked up on AK’s “thing” about height. She didn’t understand that harsh was a good sign.) I don’t know who Melba Day's mentors actually were, but they were effective. She became the head of the National Thespian Society and was always active in that high school context. When I asked where I should go, she said Northwestern. So I did.
We were close. Everyone always wants me to housesit (they have never seen my notion of housekeeping), especially if animals are involved. So I stayed in her chartreuse house with black and purple and dark turquoise walls, taking care of a huge cage of finches, another walk-in cage of birds in the yard, and the doberman, named Charcoal. Victor Sparks had created “Charco-salt,” a condiment with a lot of smoke in it, which was very popular. They were not poor. There were stacks of high-end interior decorating mags that seemed an extension of theatre. On the mantel was a delicate porcelain nude, running alongside a racing leopard.
They moved out to a little farm on a hilltop and wanted me to come live with them, take care of them, and then I could write. I knew I would never write there. But I took refuge a few times. Then they moved again to a gated community with nursing and hospital facilities on the premises. The years went by. Vic Sparks died. When Melba went to remarry, I did the wedding. When she died (of alcoholism and esophageal cancer), I did the memorial. Being brilliant, hard-working, and glamourous will not prevent anyone from suffering and dying. But it can make a lot of people glad you were alive.
Tim’s experience was totally different. He began to act as a child in a relative’s theatre troupe. Little blonde eight-year-old man, he didn’t play Peter Pan -- he played Captain Hook! In high school he was Huckleberry Finn -- he never stopped. One of the things we both know is that theatre is dangerous; acting will change who you are. The edges of your life, the verge of the stage, can be knocked out so the sky is the kuppelhorizont and the planet takes a seat to watch. It won’t keep you from dying.
According to Benedetti’s acting book (“The Actor in You: Sixteen Simple Steps to Understanding the Art of Acting,” which I just brought home from the post office an hour ago) people watch tragedies in order to discover the truth. For those of us who mix theatre and life, poetry and life, the pain of life itself is excruciating enough -- why not wring the truth out of it? Once we break the illusions of being in control, of being able to decide whether or not we are “worthy,” of deciding what in our life we should try to preserve and hand on -- what then?
That’s where religion mingles with theatre. Not that religion has any more answers than a masked actor on platform shoes, but that it holds up a mirror. I read a description of a “performance” -- or you might call it a liturgy. It is between theatre and religious service.
Go into a closed room with an oscillating fan. Sit with a big sheet of chilled glass in front of you. Lean forward and breathe on it. Observe the cloud that is your breath, your life, as it forms on the glass. Lean back and see that the cloud quickly evaporates.
Do this again but this time with a partner who breathes on the other side of the chilled glass. You lean forward, you lean back, he leans forward, he leans back. Observe the life force of each other. Reflect on how you feel.
What is not included in the description is the idea of the chilled glass shattering. In the Scriver Studio we saved the biggest pieces of plate glass we could find because we held them against the bottom of plaster-cast molds to make sure the base was flat. If we saw someone had thrown a rock through a store window, we were there, asking for the broken glass. Someone gave us the glass out of the fronts of television sets but they had a peculiar trick. They would be leaning against the wall with other pieces when suddenly -- for no cause -- they would shatter. Not just crack, but shatter like windshield safety glass. They must have been cast (glass is cast molten and rolled into sheets) in some way that put them under tension.
Theatre is a safe way to look at life transparently and yet with tension.
This is Corinthians 13:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
That’s just breath. Now lean back. Prepare for nothing.