Saturday, December 13, 2008

Back to Step One

What is the meaning of life? As an actor, this question bears quite a bit of weight, as it not only has to do with what my work will occasionally confront me with, but more importantly, it really asks me why I choose to do what I do. I dare not admit to having the answer to the question, but I do have an answer: To experience both with others and within ourselves. I discovered, or rather developed this assertion when I was fifteen, roughly around the same time I had consciously decided that acting and the theater would be what I would pursue for the rest of my life.

I have been thinking a lot lately of entertainment. What does this word mean? I used to think it a pedantic term the wealthy of our theatrical community use when describing the greatest of all things (of which, in the lectures I have sat through, they somehow try to convince me they find in the theater) – it was nowhere near what I have always envisioned my art to be. On the day of my high school graduation, my father came to find me before I walked-the-walk. He had a gift – a letter – that I still treasure to this day. In it, he proclaimed his pride for me in that I have never opted for the easy route in the theater and the arts: he told me I am not an “entertainer,” but an actor, striving in my art for a deeper understanding of self (in both myself and audience).

But in both recently traveling to Ohio to meet Kaitlyn’s brand-new baby nephew (where at one point I was referred to as “Uncle Collin”) and becoming a godparent to the beautiful girl two very close and dear friends just gave birth to, that word, “entertainment,” is beginning to change its meaning. It is becoming a very good thing.

Baby Charlie cries quite a bit. Sometimes he smiles. At three months old, he has started to laugh. When I saw Baby Isabella for the first time, she was sleeping soundly, but with a smile affixed to her face (something doctors will try to tell you is not possible at 6-hours-old). The smile of a baby brings immense joy – it somehow stirs a feeling of proud accomplishment, though I may not have had anything to do with their giggling beams (it may have something to do with my love and hope for the human race).

Why does a baby smile? While I enjoy entertaining (if you will) the notion that babies are far more intelligent than the “goo-goo” noises we make would have us giving them credit for, they certainly are not intellectually concerned with politics or philosophical conundrums. Babies scream and cry because of pain and fear – of needing or wanting something – and they smile and laugh because they are entertained. And ask any parent – it is best to keep a child constantly entertained.

Something interesting happened in Ohio. I would love to toss Baby Charlie into the air to make him smile and laugh, but I began to wonder why I would do this. It was certainly that proud accomplishment, but of what? – It was of creating a connection between Baby Charlie and myself. I had reached out across invisible bounds to have genuine human interaction – and we connected, we were sharing the joy of living. My entertainment had been serving a purpose – and I was not an “entertainer.” I was something else, something simpler, greater, more powerful – not necessarily artist in this one step back from the Theater, but certainly performer, of which role in the Theater is taken up by actor.

Also in my time there, Baby Charlie received an early Christmas present of a Jumperoo – mass amounts of entertainment in the round! But what was his favorite part of this phantasmagorical gift? Bouncing! He was allowed to express his excitement for the jungle animals surrounding and playing with him in an extremely physical – dare I say visceral? – manner. And in doing so, he is building the strength in muscles to ultimately learn to stand.

When we watch a good piece of Theater, much is demanded of us – it forces us to delve deep into ourselves in one way or another. And in this, the Theater can, and should, entertain. But what, at the end of it all, does entertainment mean? That is a question I cannot dare venture to answer; pleasure is derived in many different ways, specific to every individual. What is important here is that our entertainment engages us actively – that when in the Theater, we continue to experience.

1 comment:

Tim Butterfield said...

I have recently had similar experiences with my friends all being of the age where they either have children or are starting to have them. Also, my soon-to-be-wife's family is rife with little ones and they are adding more at what seems a daily pace.

I think the experience we have with young children is the theatrical experience in it's simplest form. If we are looking to elicit a response from a baby we either get it or we don't. There is no question as to whether the baby just wants us to feel good about ourselves, the child is either amused or not. Peter Brook says if you want to know if a show is good you should perform it for children. They will laugh, cry, be scared or simply not care. Their reactions will be completely honest.

At the risk of sounding too Aristotelian, in theater we look to connect and through that connection to teach and to enlighten for the betterment of our society/world. If we connect with a baby we know instantly that we have and at the moment of that knowledge we begin to teach, whether we know we do or not. We teach them joy, laughter or how to use their body to express themselves. These children are a blank slate, they are not the adults that sit in the back row of the theater saying "impress me." They do not need to be intellectually stimulated in order to make a connection, they do not have any walls up.

I think the feeling of proud accomplishment comes from the clear success of what we strive for as theater artists. We get absolute confirmation of the connection we have committed our lives to making.