Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Life Stories

preparation for "My Soul Look Back and Wonder"
(photo courtesy The Theatre Lab)

Although it seems like a lifetime away, just three short weeks ago I was at a reception in Antigua, Guatemala, where one of my fellow pilgrims mentioned her connection to the Theater Lab, an important school for actors here in Washington, DC. As she began describing an event called "My Soul Look Back and Wonder" at the Kennedy Center last year, in which women from the N Street Village shelter presented monologues drawn from their own struggles with homelessness, addiction, and other issues, I said, “I wrote about that in my book, Sanctifying Art!” It was just a short reference, one of many ways I described in the chapter called “Art and the Need of the World” in which the arts help people who feel hopeless and helpless find their way towards dignity and hope.

Last night, I was privileged to join my friend and a whole lot of other people at a screening of clips documenting The Theatre Lab’s work with at-risk and incarcerated young people, senior citizens, children with physical and developmental challenges, and homeless women in recovery. With tears in my eyes, I wholeheartedly joined the overwhelming applause at the end of each segment, awed by the courage, strength, and discipline of the artists who facilitate the Life Stories workshops and of the participants who share their stories and learn how to turn them into art.

a moment from "My Soul Look Back and Wonder"
(photo courtesy The Theatre Lab)
In introducing the video clips, The Theatre Lab founders Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro explained that each workshop meets weekly over the course of fourteen weeks. During that time, participants learn to turn the unformed stories of their lives into scripts, and gain the acting skills to turn those scripts into moving, accomplished monologues which they perform not only for one another but for appreciative audiences of family, friends, and sometimes strangers. And because live performance – as wonderful as it is – is an ephemeral art, the entire process is documented on video, so that participants can have something tangible to take away with them, to show other people what they accomplished.

In the panel discussion that followed the screenings, Thomas Workman, an actor, drama teacher, and director who has been working with The Theatre Lab for the past five years, observed that the goal is not theater, but getting to the important stories. Nonetheless, it is the process, the learning, the disciplined engagement over time that changes lives. As incarcerated young men find their voices in drumming, dancing, and telling their stories poetically, they begin to imagine themselves into a future in which violence, drugs, and crime are less interesting than making music with others and helping to create caring, supportive communities in which others like themselves can thrive. As middle-school children act out the stories of teen-aged angst told by people 60 or 70 years their senior, both the young people and the elders find out that they are not so different after all. As women who have lost homes, families, and self-respect to the ravages of addiction learn the difference between raw emotion and carefully crafted performance, patiently try out different approaches to their material, and keep starting over when they forget their lines, they gain the confidence to continue their education, embark on careers they had never before had been able to pursue, to recover dreams that they had forgotten they had.
Life Stories Intergenerational Program
(photo courtesy The Theatre Lab)

As inspired as I was by every performance I saw, every story I heard, I was even more heartened when Buzz Mauro said, “You cannot learn this overnight.” Too often, the arts are overlooked as serious instruments of social change as well as vehicles of personal redemption. Instead of receiving the recognition that persistent, disciplined engagement over time is the only way to accomplish anything, the arts are too often relegated to some small corner of time, either treated as mere entertainment or expected to perform miracles with no funding and no long-term commitment. As the Life Stories workshops show, inviting ordinary people to develop their latent talent into genuine skills can open hearts and change lives. That’s what we try to do here at the Center for the Arts and Religion. That’s what I hope my students will take away from their courses in the arts at Wesley Theological Seminary. I feel as though I have found kindred spirits at The Theatre Lab, thanks to my friend and a chance conversation in an unexpected place.

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