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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Walking Contradiction.


Up until last week, I used to consider myself a walking contradiction.  

You see, I’m an actor, and in the world of theatre, being organic and raw is upheld as ‘Truth’. Screaming profanities, throwing things, crying at the drop of a hat, feeling, touching, groping, loving, experiencing—this is art. This is what my teachers, classmates, directors, and co-workers look for when they are creating a piece of performance art. They want the raw, brokenness of humanity portrayed on stage as is.

To them, this is salvation.

It’s hard to explain to those who do no act what it feels like to get up on a stage and manipulate people into feeling a certain way. It’s hard to express what it feels like to reach into someone’s chest and rip their heart to shreds as they live through the actions of the actors from the audience’s perspective. I would never know how to explain what it means to go to rehearsal day in and day out to imagine, create, develop, and immerse yourself in a world with fellow players that, in essence, does not truly exist.

It’s magical. It’s powerful. It’s… addicting. 

There are so few fields in this world where you are paid to create a universe that pressures it’s patrons to simply…feel. And it’s because of this that it is so easy for an artist to get lost in the idea of not needing a creator.

Why play the created when you can simply play god?

But then, in what seems like the opposite extreme, I’m a devout Catholic. My faith, the foundation of my life, asks me to view God as Truth. In many ways, the emotions of this world seem counter to what we, as Christians, strive to attain. We may lust, rage, and envy, but we set our emotions and bodily urges aside, accepting them as our crosses, in attempt to glorify God’s creation.

We, as Christians, look to respect ourselves, love our brothers and sisters, heal, grow, learn and become like children. We pray for humility, and ask for the gifts of kindness, charity and temperance.  We are aware of our brokenness, but we praise God for His mercy and work constantly toward becoming the best version of ourselves.

We gladly accept the role as the created, and praise God for the gifts He has given us.

So…how the heck do the two extremes marry one another?

‘Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…’

A week ago I had the chance to experience something in my work that I rarely get to feel. I have often, quietly felt this way in my soul, but have never had an articulate way or opportunity to express what I feel is now necessary to share with the world.

‘…And I detest all my sins because of thy just punishment…’

You see, my voice felt like a tree, rooted in the text that I had so purposefully chosen the day before. Each word fell from my mouth like a piece of ripened fruit, and the more I spoke the more I felt grounded in myself and my faith.

Before I dive in any further, let me just skim through what exactly my ‘work’ as an acting student is. I’m not just one of those ‘Oh, hey…I like community theatre but have a real job during the day so that I can support myself and not starve because I’m sensible’ kind, but more so the ‘I’m paying a substantial amount of money so that I can go to a prestigious acting program and will be in debt for the rest of my life all for the sake of art and living my dream’ kind.

I never said I was the brightest bulb in the bunch.

Essentially, while normal college kids spend their time in classrooms with tables, chairs and notebooks…I spend my days rolling around on gym mats, loosening my jaw and doing tai chi and yoga.

So, last week my Voice and Speech teacher asked us to bring in a text that we knew by heart and were deeply connected to. The plan was to ‘de-structure’ the text—basically break it down into simple sounds and syllables and then rebuild it until the imagery and intention of the text was raw, organic, and flowing from a free and natural voice. And when we were ready, we would speak our text to a nearby ensemble member to share in this experience.

The work we do depends heavily on willingness to be vulnerable. In using text that we felt was important to us, it was inevitable that it would be an emotional roller coaster when confronted with a point of focus. In allowing an ensemble member to drop down into the center of our beings with us, to hear and participate in our own exploration of the words we held so dear to our hearts, we would be learning far more about art, ourselves and humanity than just doing the work by ourselves.

[I know, I know…if you’ve never come across an acting school, it all sounds ridiculous].

As I listened to him speak about the work we would be doing, I had the impulse to use the Act of Contrition [a Catholic prayer used in confession].   

 ‘…But most of all, because I have offended thee, my God…’

Only…I don’t talk about my faith in the theatre school.

‘…Who art all good and deserving of all my love…’

Not because I’m uncomfortable with my beliefs. On the contrary, my deep love of Christ has made me bold in many ways [take this blog, for instance] and my classmates know very well how religious and faith-filled I am. But, I have found, particularly with artists…it is better to love infinitely and allow Christ to work through the silent conversations between souls, rather than force dialogue many do not wish or are not ready to have.

I was surprised, to say the least, when I walked in to class the next day still filled with the desire to pray in my studio. It seemed…sacrilegious, in a way. And yet, some inner force urged me to speak the prayer. 

‘…I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace…’

I laid on the mats, breathing in and out as I had done so many classes before. When we were given the instruction to begin our texts, I knew immediately why the spirit of the Lord had urged me to speak.

Next to me, on the ground, lay one of my very close and beautiful classmates. Her text, a monologue from one of Sam Shepherd’s plays…was about God being dead. How an artist must be smooth like Jesus, must be selfish like Jesus…that Jesus and the time for religion and faith…was no more. That people could not be filled with the rubbish of God, because it was too far away to connect to.

I laughed.

And then I prayed.

‘…To sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen…’

When we made our way to standing, I was looking out the window as I spoke, but I could see from the corner of my eye that she was standing, speaking her text toward me. She wanted, so badly, to battle with our contradictory words.

And as I turned to her as she spoke, I saw tears form in her big beautiful brown eyes.

Why was I so calm? Why was I relaxed in this obvious emotional battle? I’ll admit it—I’m a crier! I should have been weeping at this obvious attack on my core beliefs.

Yet, all I wanted to do was hug her and tell her that everything was okay! But my teacher instructed me to fight through the emotions we felt and continue speaking the text…so, I carried on with my repetition of the Act of Contrition. And the more I spoke, the more she cried and the more she cried, the more I felt… Fine. Great. Wonderful. Perfect.

Finally, the exercise was complete, and while I could see frustration in her face, I pulled her to me and allowed our hearts to beat in unison.

I cannot fully express what this experience gave to me, but I want to try to put it into words before I forget the feeling:

Theatre and faith…are one in the same. As I spoke my prayer, I realized the tradition of my faith; the parables, the lives of the saints and angels and prophets…the very core of my beliefs in mercy, love and understanding… are fully intertwined in the tradition of theatre.

We tell stories. We sympathize with humanity. We love. We understand.

We yearn to feel full, and so we create, in our brokenness, a world to fill ourselves.

My father only recently converted to Catholicism…before he was Catholic, he had been raised Jewish. When he decided that he believed in Christ, that Jesus was not just a prophet, but the son of God…he decided to call himself a ‘Completed Jew’.

Today, I am choosing to call myself a Completed Artist—because there is nothing contradictory in loving humanity and Christ in the same breath.

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