Ten Lessons About Social Distancing and Times of Crisis That We Can learn From Theater

I had the chance to meet “Shrek” and loved it when he said I was just a big kid! Don’t judge!

  1. Shrek is the perfect example of social distancing. When he is misunderstood, he decides it is better to live alone and in the swamp. Of course, he meets Donkey and Fiona and well..who can resist a good love story reminding us that we are better with people. The other favorite about this musical is

that it ends with a Monkee’s song, Daydream Believer. I loved the group and this is one of my favorite songs so getting to enjoy that song at the end of this musical makes it a real treat.

2.  Les Misérables. I think I can speak confidently for broken-hearted girls everywhere that Eponine is their representative. She has a horrible home life and has really had to take care of herself most of her life. Then she meets, Marius, basically someone that could be her prince charming. Is it love at first sight? Nope, not for this tragic creature. Instead she helps him communicate with the person he has fallen in love with. She sings the song that many a girl has belted out in their rooms through tears. “On my Own.”

On my own
Pretending he’s beside me
All alone
I walk with him till morning
Without him
I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me

Yep. That’s what we are all doing right now. All alone. Maybe the lesson we learn from her is that we can sing our way through any circumstance in life!

3. Rapunzel. This sweet character was locked away in a tower for most of her life. I mean, you all remember how long her hair was when her prince climbed up to rescue her, right? (And you think you need a hair cut…) One of the main things I love about Rapunzel is that she made good use of her time. She painted and baked and well…everything. What new skill are you learning as you are confined?

Brianna Valentine played Rapunzel for our Movie in the Park event. I am so sorry you can’t see her beautiful long hair in this photo! Especially since it represents how badly we all are going to be in need of a hair cut when we get out again!

Oh, by the way. This story also teaches us about hope. Rapunzel’s parents never gave up hope that she was going to return. In a way, it was the beauty of the lanterns and their optimism that brought her home. So, let’s not give up hope that we are going to conquer this evil virus sooner rather than later!

4.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I might as well do all my tower characters together! Quasimodo. This tragic character was born deformed. Because of his appearance he was condemned to the cathedral’s tower by the caretaker. Quasimodo yearned to experience the outside world and be among the people. (Sound familiar?) I love the lesson of this show….who the monster is and who the man is depends on your point of view.

5. The Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom lurks around hiding and isolating himself. Let’s face it, he was wearing a mask before it was cool! In fact, this beautiful operetta sings an entire song about masks!

Masquerade! Paper faces on parade

Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you

Masquerade! Every face a different shade

Masquerade! Look around, there’s another mask behind you

Yep, masks, masks everywhere I look. In all seriousness, one of the lessons of Phantom is that regardless of circumstances we have a choice on how we live our lives. Such a good reminder right now.

6. Beauty and the Beast. Yep. you guessed it. Another character that is isolated alone, hiding away from the world as we know it. But the Beast is lucky, he has Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts to keep him company. Then, as fate would have it Belle enters his life. What lesson can we learn? We actually learn the lesson from Belle. The fairy tale, happily-ever-after love story might not look like one right away, but don’t give up ! That love story might be waiting for you when you least expect it!

7. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Adam and his brothers lived outside of their town. They had no manners and knew little about love. They thought they could force their seclusion on others and kidnapped the girls in town that had captured their hearts and forced an avalanche so that they could keep them all winter. Lucky for the girls, Milly, Adam’s wife, forced the guys to stay in the barn and kept the couples apart. Lesson? The premise is bad, but thankfully it is seen as a farce and teaches the lesson that love changes the heart of another. We can also learn that it isn’t good to be alone–people make bad decisions! (Seems like we keep being reminded of that lesson)

8. Wicked. Elphaba is green and misunderstood. So….she doesn’t really wear a mask….but again…she is GREEN so I think that counts. But don’t count her out. You won’t find her in the middle of the crowd and that’s ok. There are so many great things to learn from this musical. You don’t always have to do the “popular” thing. Sometimes the other choice is better. Your future is unlimited. Lastly, sometimes you just have to dance through life.

9. The Diary of Anne Frank. I know I’ve mentioned her quite a bit lately, but there is so much to learn from her. As you know, her family went into hiding on July 6, 1942. They continued to live in hiding until they were arrested on August 4, 1944. In spite of Anne’s living conditions, she was aware that her family had more than others. What can we learn? The importance of perspective. We can also learn to look for the silver lining instead of thinking about how horrible our situation is. In hiding she wrote,

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go…somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

“Those who have courage and faith shall never perish in misery.”

10. The Trip to Bountiful. I have saved my favorite for last. When the stay at home orders were issued we were in the middle of our production of Bountiful. I had the honor of portraying Carrie Watts and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have the chance of playing another character that is as wonderful as she is. Why Carrie? She says:

“That was what was killing me! To be locked up in those two rooms! I bet I’ll live to be 100 now that I can get outside again!

I think we can all understand how Carrie was feeling! One other thing we can learn from Carrie is that no one can take away our song. We might not be able to get out and do all the things we want to or be with the people we want to be with, but you can keep singing. And I can’t wait to sing again with all of you.

Keep singing, my friends!

I’d love to hear what you think. Are there other characters I should have included? Please share this blog and follow so you don’t miss a post!

Until next time!

Meet Guest Blogger–Nathan Pittack

Featured Post

The Chameleons of the Theatre (what they do and why they matter)

I am so thrilled to introduce Nathan to all of you. Some of you may remember Nathan from a few year’s ago when we had the honor of having him at Overshadowed just for a few weeks before he returned home to get married. He made a lasting impression on us in just that short amount of time and I can’t wait for you to get to know his heart in this blog! Enjoy!

When Reba asked me if I would be a guest author on her blog, I must admit I felt both honored and nervous—happy to reconnect with Overshadowed, but also a tad afraid of the topic. She asked me a seemingly simple question: “What is a dramaturg?” 

But the truth is there’s no official, textbook definition. The role can vary from show to show, company to company. Not to mention dramaturgs are often overlooked in America. But one thing is for sure—dramaturgs are the chameleons of the theatre. When involved, they enrich every single aspect of a production, even though their specific influence may be hard to define. In short, they are Content and Context experts. Their main responsibility? To ask 3 questions about every play they work on. And to answer them as thoroughly and collaboratively as possible.

Question 1: Why Then?

“How much is a guinea worth?”
“Where did swing music come from?” 
“What were French fashions in 1834?” 
“What does this Shakespearean monologue mean, anyway? Can I cut it?” 
“Why was it like that back Then?”

Dramaturgs are tasked with answering countless historical questions for designers, directors, and actors alike. Mercifully, they usually join a production before any other member of the team (unless a playwright is involved). This gives them time to gather a wealth of information to share before any acting, design, and directorial choices are made. These findings are gathered into one large document called the Actor’s Packet. Typically, production team members get a copy during preliminary meetings, and actors receive it on the first night of rehearsal.Now you may be thinking: “Don’t the cast and crew do their own research?” And the answer is yes, they do (or should!). But by doing a lot of research ahead of time, dramaturgs help save them hours of work. But even more importantly is how dramaturgs offer insight into questions that aren’t quite so easily answered with a Google search:

“What’s with the scrims in The Glass Menagerie?”
“Why is Arthur Miller obsessed with Greek theatre structure?”
“How did religion shape Shakespeare’s plays and characters?”

These are questions of culture—specifically the aesthetics of the playwrights themselves and the societies they lived in. And unfortunately too many productions skip right on by these. 

“But why is that a problem?” you may ask. Well, think of it this way: Plays, like any art form, are created in response to something—personal, political, societal, you name it. And so if we divorce ourselves from the original context of the play—and the reason it was written—we not only fail to understand the message itself, but fail to know how to translate it to a modern-day world. 

Dramaturgs help us make this connection. Which leads me to Question 2.

Question 2: Why Now?

A dramaturg’s job doesn’t end with the Actor’s Packet. He’s not just handing out a bunch of historical facts and aesthetic recommendations–then walking away hoping it’s all done properly.  

No—the dramaturg is an active on-going presence throughout the rehearsal process. Serving as the confidant to the director, the dramaturg keeps this question in sight at all times: 

“Why this play Now?”

In other words, 
“What is its significance today?”

Or—if it’s a new play—
“Why is it worth the risk to support this playwright and produce it?”

Dramaturgs keep the team focused on answering these “Now” questions in several ways. 

First of all, they champion the play itself. If it’s an established script, they make sure that its original context isn’t lost—or worse, misrepresented for the sake of “innovation”—during the production’s process. To do this, they facilitate meaningful discussion and interpretation of the play, including modern-day applications. 

If it’s a new play, dramaturgs work with the playwright directly—consulting them on potential adjustments, maintaining the script’s integrity, and ensuring the play’s present-day message isn’t muddled. Because if it is, then the theatre has lost the reason they took the risk to produce it!

Second, by focusing on “Why this play now?”, the dramaturg reminds the team of why they chose to do this play in the first place. For instance, let’s say the director shared a brilliant vision for the play at the table read. A couple weeks in, the dramaturg asks:

“Is this vision being realized?”
“Are acting and design choices in line with these directorial goals? With the text itself?” 
“Based on how rehearsals are going, will the audience receive the intended message?”

( a shot of the departmental statement Nathan wrote for a recent production)

Dramaturgs help directors keep the original vision intact, and they serve as sounding boards for the thousands of decisions that come directors’ ways. While directors may feel they’re making one isolated choice after another, dramaturgs are there to point out how each choice influences the overall vision—and ultimately, how the audience will experience the play. Which leads into Question 3.

Question 3: Why Here?

This question is critical. 

Why is this theatre doing this play in this community?

And unfortunately many theatres don’t even think to ask it.

But a dramaturg has it on their radar long before a script is selected in the first place. In fact, theatres with resident dramaturgs often task them with sourcing play options for their seasons. And there are two crucial reasons why.

First, we know any established theatre ought to have a clear and distinct identity and mission. We should be able to say, “Oh yeah, that theatre is known for [family/edgy/comedy/etc.] shows.” And so when a theatre company is looking to pull together a cohesive season, dramaturgs go to work to find plays that fit the theatre’s niche, and even specific themes if desired. A lot of times this is how new playwrights are discovered—dramaturgs are dear friends of new works!

But it’s not enough to know why the theatre is doing the play.

Secondly, a dramaturg helps determine why a specific community needs this play. Let’s say you’re a comedy-oriented theatre and you want to do a production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park—a funny play about a newlywed couple in New York City. But there’s a catch: you’re located in southern Mississippi surrounded by an older community of blue collar workers. The play may fit your niche, but it doesn’t serve your audience demographic. 

This audience-centered thinking is the bread and butter of the dramaturg. If a play’s appeal doesn’t extend beyond the theatre company itself—if it’s not a gift to the larger community, speaking to them in specific ways—then the dramaturg should rightfully ask:

Why are we doing it at all?” 

But—when a play is chosen that does meet the theatre’s niche as well as its surrounding community, dramaturgs are in their happy place. In fact, this is personally my favorite aspect of dramaturgy and why I am so passionate about it. Because the dramaturg now gets to create meaning that extends beyond the production itself.

Through presentations to cast and crew, dramaturgs get to express why this play matters to the outside world—the one right outside their door! And by creating lobby displays, program notes, and talkback sessions, dramaturgs show audiences that this production speaks to their lives and experiences right now, right here. 

It’s a gift. And it’s personal. 

When you choose a play for a specific audience, a specific community, you’re saying:

 “I see you. I hear you. I know what you value—what speaks to your soul.”  

And sometimes even:

I know this one will be hard for you; but I think you need it—it’ll help you grow.” 

Dramaturgs search for plays that serve their audience. And I kind of think that looks like Jesus.

So to sum up a post longer than I intended, dramaturgs are a vital part of the theatre. Because their three questions—why then? why now? why here?—all answer one ultimate question: 

Why it matters

If we fail to answer that, then we’ve failed to give a gift. And if we fail to give a gift, then we’ve failed to make art. 

May we as Christians always be gift-givers.

Selected Resource: 

Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy by Michael Mark Chemers

You can follow Nathan @nathan_pittack or contact him at nathanpittack@icloud.com

As always, we’d love to hear your comments! And we’d love it if you’d take a moment to like us and share this blog!

Until next time!