Repost: Theatre of Joy

In 2011, I wrote the following blog post for my short lived blog, Towards a Holy Theatre, where I had planned to explore the intersections between theatre and church. The blog has been dormant for years due to various issues, but the post was the start of me developing an artistic manifesto.

April 5, 2011

I’ve been debating writing this post. The blog, which I haven’t updated in six months, could have languished longer. Forever, possibly, while I continued on as an arts advocate/admin blogger at 2amtheatre.

Except my inner child isn’t allowing it.

My inner child, or more accurately, my inner 20 year old is bursting from the seams with glee right now.

Because The House Theatre of Chicago will be opening The Sparrow this weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Now, respectable 28 year old me is an executive director, prominent in the national conversation on 2amt, has sat on a board of directors, known for throwing some great parties (or as Chris Jahn put it, in loving sarcasm parties that don’t suck), and is currently plotting how she can best help her organization and her theatre community grow.

This me, 28 year old respectable me, is a little scared about outing herself as a fangirl. But 20 year old me, full of nostalgia and glee, is winning out.

I was in my second freshman year at DePaul University (as a transfer student I always felt I had two freshman years) when my friend Jenny took me to see The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan. At this point, near the end of my first quarter, I was in middle of a crisis of calling. Was this occupation that I had chosen for myself really where my gifts and joy lie? Did I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life? Should I chuck everything and write children’s novels?

In that time of crisis, Jenny took me out in the Chicago sleet to go see The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan.

She was bursting with love for the show and had seen it a few times before, dragging new friends each time. She told me that I should wear something comfortable because we were going to be sitting on cushions on the floor. It was a cold night as we trekked out to the Viaduct and I wondered if I really wanted to sit on a cushion on the floor that would invariably end up wet by my soggy, sleet soaked self.

I entered a grump; I came out elated and full of purpose.

I said on my livejournal (remember livejournal?) that it was the best thing that had happened to me that month. In retrospect, it was one of my favorite theatre going experiences. Right up there with the production of My Fair Lady which got me into this profession. Was it a perfect show? No. But it was inventive, funny, delightful, and allowed me to think about theatre in a way that I had never thought about theatre before. Why not have an entire cast become a giant crocodile through the inventive use of fabric and puppet jaws? Why not use magic, dance, music? Why not delight your audience?

It was the first time I had ever conceived a theatre of joy. Not a theatre of light entertainment, but of joy. Deep, resonant joy.

My admiration deepened the following year, when Chris Jones brought Nathan Allen to our theatre criticism class. Nate invited the class to attend a reading of San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid. I’m fairly certain I was the only one who showed up. The company read the script and then there was an hour or so long discussion after on how to improve the script. (I remember I commented on the two-dimensional nature of the female lead.) While I felt the script was flawed; I loved their approach to the reading. Improving the script was a communal process. It was a room without ego, with everyone working together towards the common goal of making the best script they could have. I documented that experience again in livejournal, saying that I wanted to be the House Theatre when I grew up.

I continued on as fangirl throughout my time at DePaul, often seeing shows twice, if I could manage it. Even when they were less than great, I was always excited to get my trading card and absorb the experience. (Instead of programs and tickets, they have trading cards. The idea is for people in the audience to discuss who they have and share their cards before the show starts. It’s a brilliant little bit of institutional marketing that I reference when I discuss marketing in a professional setting.)

And when they were at their best, they soared. I still remember the hair rising on the back of my neck from the final image of The Boy Detective Fails.

I moved to South Florida a year after I graduated in 2006. I have found the South Florida Theatre community to be loving, giving, contrary, and full of really great things. But while I love the new work and family atmosphere of Florida Stage and the edgy fun of a MadCat Show or the immersion of a Naked Stage show, I haven’t found an experience to equal what I loved about the House Theatre. Where there is a embrace of all the assets of theatricality. That dance, music, film, magic can all be a part of a greater, mythic narrative.

I really agree with what Bill Hirschman said last night at the Carbonells that the South Florida Theatre Community takes a backseat to no one — but I think we can expand even more by engaging with the vision of others. I want a more artistically diverse South Florida Theatre Community. We have our own takes on Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens — I want a local House. A local Neo-Futurists. A local Lookingglass. Or something that is completely different and doesn’t have a Chicago equivalent. I think the best way to do that is to broaden our horizons, and that’s why I’m encouraging everyone I know to see The Sparrow.

I want everyone I love here to have the opportunity to be 20 year old me. Full of rapture and delight. I want more theatre of joy, more theatre that embraces the idea that more is more. We have plenty of understated, traditional realistic theatre — let us see what happens when we play freely with the primary colors of childhood. What beauty and depth lurks there. As Chris Mathews says in the Miami Herald article, “Without sounding like an arrogant punk, we created The House because we were bored with the state of most theater we were seeing. We were raised on [Back to the Future director] Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. We thought there’s no reason theater can’t be exciting and imaginative.”

In the same article, Scott Shiller of the Adrienne Arsht Center, says that he hopes this is the start of a two way collaboration between the House and the South Florida Theatre community. And since I’ve now outed myself as a fangirl, I’m going to publicly state that I’m going to do what I can do as the executive director of the South Florida Theatre League to make this happen. I know I’ve spent past few years saying that I want to create a theatre of joy, and I’m hoping that seeing The Sparrow will be the jolt I need to revive my commitment to make that happen. Because even though I have learned so much in the past eight years, I still want to be the House Theatre when I grow up.

In the meantime, I’m going to be like Jenny Pinson, dragging friends multiple times, awaiting to see what trading card I get next.

(PS — There better be trading cards.)