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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

of beauty and performance

Beauty doesn’t get talked about too much in theater. Or at least not in the theater circles I’ve been a part of. And that’s probably because it’s a word of too many meanings.

The definition of beauty that I think is most familiar is the beauty of surfaces… a beauty of colors, shapes, lines, and arrangements. Certainly some of the pleasure we feel, this visual pleasure is spontaneous… but a lot of what the eye tells us is beautiful is deeply informed by what a particular time and culture calls beautiful.

I’ve been as enthralled to visual beauty as anyone. I enjoy spectacle, I like design and detail, I’m often helplessly in love with movies for their look… but for some reason, when it comes to the visual part of my own work, I can’t bring myself to aim for such perfectness…no matter where I start, I end up wanting (and making) something more homespun, simpler, more everyday in its look. I like a kind of modest honesty in things. And I like things that bear the marks of human touch, a bit of imperfection.

And that affection I have for the beauty of humanness is at the root of what I think is the second meaning of the word. This isn’t usually a beauty that’s very pretty in its surfaces and rarely has any kind of arranged composition to it. It’s unexpected and often bursts upon us out of the blue.

Such as when you’re with someone dear to you who is crying, heartbroken, while you attempt to comfort them… and even at that painful moment, you suddenly sense them as profoundly beautiful. It’s the kind of beauty that stops you, frozen in your tracks, when you walk in a room to speak to your child, any child, and catch them deep in play, full of imagination, alone and engaged, unmindful of the world.

I would call this sort of beauty transparency. When we catch a glimpse of the true nature of another human being -- of, perhaps, our common human nature.

I’ve spent most of my working life as an artist with young people. I’ve done this not because the adult theater world rejected me, but because I chose to. And I chose to, because young artists have given me many… more than they’ll ever know…. of these moments of beauty.

Adult actors, like adult people, can become so highly skilled at putting on ‘the mask’, the ‘character’, that sometimes I can hardly glimpse the real human inside the performance. Young actors, like young people, can be awkward at times, they may stumble… but what I love is how transparent they can be. How much I can see, simultaneously, like a visual overlay, of both the character they are playing and the human being at play.

I love stories, and I encourage all my companies to find their way deep into the heart of the story, into its reality. The paradox is that when young actors are most fully engaged and alive in the story, is when they most ‘forget’ themselves, and when they most ‘forget’ themselves, is when I can perceive them most clearly. I see the story AND I see the humans, these wonderful, fabulous humans, who are making it. And what they demonstrate so powerfully is how creative, how loving, how tender, how intelligent, how deserving of respect all human beings are. Beautiful

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