Stage Presence: A spirituality of theater
I have often thought of the theater as my church, and not only in periods when my actual church attendance has been spotty for one reason or another, including sleeping in from late nights after the theater. Indeed, analogies between theatergoing and churchgoing are easy to make: the audience as congregation, the liturgy as a kind of script, the priest as performer.
In the two decades that I have been writing about the theater, another less-happy analogy has begun to suggest itself. This instant-gratification age, with watchable screens at our fingertips everywhere we turn (even in our pockets), can make it feel positively quaint to gather in a room at an appointed time to watch live people act their way through a story. Similarly, it can go against the grain of a hyper-accelerated, acquisitive culture to step off the treadmill to spend a few hours in worship and prayer. Drama and theology undergird much of the culture we take for granted; just think of the human stories we are repeatedly drawn to and of the larger stories by which we still make sense of the world. Yet those of us who are still serious about actual religion and theater can feel like dinosaurs.
But when I think of theater as a spiritual practice and of theaters as sacred spaces, in their own way, I mean something more than these collegial resemblances. Theater’s spirituality is contained in its very essence, and I understand that essence in a deeply Christian way. In simple terms, theater is an arena where narrative is incarnated. When a story is made flesh before us on stage, by actual people with whom we share breathing space, it is no longer just information, mere plot points. It is metaphor with the sweat and spit of life in it, and that makes all the difference.
This sense of immediacy, of sharing the room with real people playing out imaginary situations, has several powerful effects, whether we notice them or not. The first is resistance—visceral resistance. A play does not envelop an audience in one swoop, immediately, the way a film can from its first shot. Even the best stage set has obvious fakery in it; we know the doors lead into walls and that the sky is a painted flat. Even the subtlest stage acting usually looks, at first glance, stagey. This is true even of plays that will end up absorbing us. It is as though our theatrical pupils need to dilate before they can see what they are looking at.
Put another way, suspension of disbelief—the crucial double negative that makes both faith and storytelling possible—is always a harder bargain in the theater. When a play is not successful, this deal is never closed, which is one reason why a bad play usually seems so much worse than a bad movie does. When one group of people in a room struggles for hours to win over another group in the same room, it is physically exhausting for both parties in a way that no bad movie, forever frozen in its missteps, ever is.
The flip side of that, and the second imperceptible effect of theater’s “liveness,” is an intense, almost overwhelming identification. If films more completely sweep us into their worlds, the result can be a sort of narcoticized stupor, as we stare dutifully at vistas the camera has already digested for us. But a good play can trick us, slowly but surely, into relationship with its characters—into an emotional intimacy that feels almost dangerous, all the more so because it’s live, in a moment, not to be repeated, with people right there.
Mind you, moments of total immersion, when you forget you are in a theater watching a play, do not last long. They are fleeting even in the best productions since you are always “waking up” to theater’s artifice. That is particularly true if the audience laughs or sighs or collectively generates the unmistakable, breath-held-in silence of total concentration. But this layered experience of being immersed, of losing ourselves a little bit, then snapping out of it self-consciously to note the collective feeling resonating around the room, is not only a unique pleasure of theater—what we mean when we say a show moved or tickled us.
It is also why a good play is like a good church service, and it is what I mean when I say I have felt God’s incarnate presence in a theater. From my particular seat I am wooed slowly by metaphors and symbols, texts and tokens, into relationship with something outside myself. What cinches it—what makes it personal—is that this relationship is literally embodied and shared in communion.
No church or theater has ever put me in an unbroken trance state, where I felt I had entered another dimension, for any significant length of time. But both have let me glimpse into that “upper room,” from the fictions of this world to the truth of the next. Those flashes have lit my way.
When I recall specific shows I could point to as epiphanies, I find no common thematic link among them. I have been transported at amateur productions of Bertolt Brecht, by toe-tapping musicals, by classic tragedy and by contemporary farce. I still recall the buzz generated by Tracy Letts’s “Bug” at a small Off-Broadway theater; in that play an addled Persian Gulf war veteran believes the government has infected him with a disease and that tiny bugs are crawling all over his body. What sticks with me are not the play’s violent shocks and jolts; instead, it is the unsettling indeterminacy at the heart of the show’s premise. Was our hero a sinister paranoiac off his meds, or an innocent human guinea pig in a vast conspiracy? The play never definitively tipped its hand, and no matter how close we theatergoers were to the action in that intimate theater, we couldn’t see whether those bugs were real or imaginary. It was a perfect instance of theater’s ability to make us believe an embodied fiction; I still itch at the memory.
Plays with explicit spiritual themes can be less theatrically transporting, if only because most dramatists conceive of plays with religious themes or characters as social “problem plays”—courtroom dramas, in effect, that weigh the claims of revelation against the testimony of experience. Religious faith is the subject of “A Man for All Seasons,” for instance, but its telling does not model a religious experience. On the other hand, in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” a few years back at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., a visiting British company made that meaty play freshly revelatory by acknowledging and building on theater’s essential artifice. The show began with the actors in modern dress, with scripts at hand; it was as if we were watching them at rehearsal. Over the course of the play’s nearly four-hour running time, swords, breastplates and battle flags were gradually introduced, until by play’s end we were fully immersed in Joan’s world. Our transit from one reality to another, from an air-conditioned theater to 15th-century Orleans, was a journey we shared.
The most supernatural moment I have ever experienced in a theater took place at a production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana” some years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It came when Shannon, a defrocked minister in self-imposed Mexican exile, gave a farewell look to Hannah, a spinster who has heard his confession and given him a kind of absolution. He says simply, “I want to remember that face. I won’t see it again.” That’s all the script says, but I swear I heard another line of dialogue describing the image of Hannah, standing in a doorway, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the stars, as something along the lines of “a picture of a saint in a cathedral.”
The thing is, there is no line like that in Williams’s play. But there is a stage direction describing Hannah’s first entrance: “She suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint.” I cannot to this day explain how that production put those words in my mind without speaking them, except by way of another memorable phrase from Williams’s Blanche DuBois: “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”