Theater as an exploration of humanity

Rachel Polzer, Contributing Writer

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Actors inevitably see the world differently while in character on stage. Photo by Marquel Plavan.

There’s a certain thrill that comes from performing. To posit such is nothing new; noting the adrenaline art brings to its maker is not particularly groundbreaking. But in theater, there is the added dimension of the joy of community.

“Measure for Measure” has one of the largest casts of a Mainstage in my three years at the University of Dallas. With 19 actors, much teamwork and collaboration is necessary for the whole process. When your scene partner has immersed himself into the world of play, it is so much easier to immerse yourself, too. Actors make discoveries about their characters in the beginning and all the way through the final performance; the enthusiasm of the whole cast makes a show so much more dynamic.

When “Measure for Measure” opened two weeks ago, the show fully came alive. For the audience members, the show had not been a reality until they came and saw the show; for the director, designers, actors and stage managers, the show has been a great part of life for months.

Theater, as a collaborative art, requires the loyalty and dedication of all its participants, including the audience. The audience is an integral part of theater; the thrill of finally performing in front of an audience is the reason many of us continue to make theater — to act, design or be a part of the backstage crew.

Theater is about exploring humanity, finding the truth in a playwright’s words and telling another person’s story with one’s own actions and emotions. Visual art employs the mediums of canvas, paints, clay and metals, and music uses instruments and voices. But the instrument of theater is the actor: the human person.

As the art of human life, theater fits in beautifully at UD. It is philosophical and literary and asks all sorts of questions about what it means to live.

We begin asking those questions during table work — delving into the words of the script to figure out the story that needs to be told, before the actors ever step onto the stage. This is an integral part of the process that provides a foundation for everything else an actor does and brings the actor and director onto the same page to explore more deeply the characters and actions of the play in rehearsal.

Every time they step on stage, actors try to answer the question of what it means to live. Because that’s what acting is, really: living your character. That takes so much more than merely emoting onto words; it requires getting over the fear of being vulnerable.

An actor’s vulnerability is mesmerizing to the audience — compelling. Why else do we go to the theater? It can’t simply be to watch a rugby player in a three-piece suit seduce a chemistry and classics double major who is wearing a novitiate’s habit.

The audience is most satisfied or most moved by an actor’s performance when he is not acting but living. And rightly so, an actor is most invigorated, if exhausted, when he lives on stage, rather than when he speaks the lines without committing to the world of the play. And oftentimes, an actor does not remember what just happened:

“How did that scene feel?”

“Well, I’m exhausted, I’m drained. I think it went well.”

As an actor, I’ll admit that allowing myself to take on the vulnerability necessary to play a role — to live on stage — is terrifyingly exhilarating. It’s terrifying to have the job of living in front of other people, living for everyone else to see, through those most difficult situations that plays are written about. Because when was the last time you saw a play about an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary person?

It is so satisfying, however, to take on a role and dedicate one’s self to it, to come to know and love the person whose life you are taking on for the couple hours of performance each night. I have learned so much about humanity and myself through acting and theater.

Acting is a drug — an artistic, philosophical, emotional, truth-seeking, self-giving addiction — that is so enriching and rewarding for the actor and, hopefully, for the audience members who share in the experience of the performance.

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