The Stories that Matter

man tunnelFor those of you unfamiliar with my story, there were portions of my life that, let me put this delicately, were a bit seedy. I spent a good number of years looking for easier and softer ways to move through life with little to no concern for those or things that didn’t involve me personally. By the grace of life, in the midst of my personal trials, I was exposed to participation in theatre. Despite my own nature at the time for self-indulgence and ego, there was a glimpse of opportunity that I saw when I was privileged to play two specific roles as an actor.

As a white male in an essentially white school, I was given the opportunity to play Othello. It was my first foray delving into a life entirely dissimilar from my own. I peeked into the burden of difference, I sensed the pain of exclusion.

A few years later, still working very hard on my life goal to be a professional drunk and drug addict, I negotiated my way into playing Chief Bromden, a character in the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In this character I learned that even while seemingly physically powerful one can become imprisoned in fear of society, where culture and rules are dictated by arbitrary power and that even in relative silence a character can have profound impact upon an audience.

Nearly 20 years later, when I had nearly beaten myself into extinction, I was re-engaged in acting, had a few years of tenuous sobriety, and was cast as Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol.  And while I was aware of the transformative power of theatre in an abstract sense, my experiences suddenly congealed to create a vivid demonstration of just how profound the theatrical experience can be.

I, like many if not most, in my early career, upon finding some talent in performing, did soon dream of opportunity and riches. But suddenly after more than 20 years on and off stage, I had an epiphany. The art of theatre was not about me or for me, the art of theatre was about the opportunity to see beyond me.

Suddenly, I was no longer awaiting the next role that would propel me to stardom, but I was looking for work that made sense, empowered compassion and sought human honesty. I realized that I saw the art of theatre, in the same light as those inspired by the mysticism of theology. In time I have come to call theatre the religion of the 21st century.

Theatre is all about allegory and costumes and ritual.  And like most religions the great questions of mankind are asked, but here is the difference. Theatre does not dictate your conclusions, it suggest morals, it leads us to conclusions, but in the end, it is the humanity within each of us, the collective consciences of the world that is reflected and encouraged.

In my journey through life, I have encountered many that have a similar sense. Phrases like the “Sacred Stage”, “theatre is my religion”, “the stage is my temple”, are not unique, in fact are more than common, even frequent amongst theatre artists. I think for many, uttering those words within the circle of theatre is an easy expression of understanding. It is only in the expression of our fervency to those outside of our circle do we become reluctant. Will we be ridiculed for believing that the revelation of the human experience is in fact the divine spark of creativity? or are we ready to embrace the power of our art and employ it with all the fervency of our beings?

As we are in the transition of the year, ushering out the old, and greeting the new, we are all reflective of our lives, what changes we want, what’s new that we will try, what’s old that we will give up, the usual.   In the upcoming year, I’m planning to have Footlights  focus a bit more on the transformative power of theatre.  What are people – what are theatres – doing that are impacting our world? Are there missions within theatre companies, are there projects that address unique circumstances?

Do you have a story of transformation?  A moment when you knew you touched someone?  A moment that changed your insights?

Tell me about it.  Let’s share.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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