By Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, MFA MPA
I will never forget the moment I realized the true extent of the power of theatre. Studying and performing in Moscow, Russia with master drama teachers as part of the graduate MFA in Acting program at Carnegie Mellon University, I had the privilege of performing the role of Anna in Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths at the famed Moscow Art Theatre on the very stage the play premiered on in 1902 and in the very theatre where Constantin Stanislavsky and his pupil Anton Chekov collaborated.
Anna is part of a destitute motley crew living in squalor with her husband Kletsch. Sick with consumption, she wakes each morning fighting to live another day. Director Yuri Yeremin staged the play with audience members sitting onstage with the actors in an intimate setting. The relationship between the spectators and actors was organically integrated — the fourth wall broken. The audience could hear us breathing, feel the energy flowing from our bodies. When the time came for Anna to succumb to her inevitable death, as the actor, my body was laid on a table within arm’s reach of the audience. I heard sniffles and suddenly felt a hand rest gently upon my chest. The owner of the hand whispered, “shhhhh” as if to say, “rest, now.” Whether the audience member’s action was cathartic to herself, I do not know. But what I do know is for that moment and many other moments during subsequent performances, there was a connection between the actors and the audience.
It is believed that theatre brings the community together for a shared experience and may be compared to a religious or spiritual event, which is fitting considering the theatre tradition is as old as mankind itself. What began as ritual and ceremony has evolved into a discipline that delights the senses through genres such as tragedy, melodrama, comedy, musical theatre, avantgarde, performance art, social theatre, commedia dell’arte, puppetry, opera, pantomime, and even a combination thereof presented by companies such as Cirque Du Soleil. The moment the audience steps into a theatrical space, even as patrons settle into their seats with anticipation and actors prepare backstage for the curtain to rise, there is an unspeakable bond, a force that binds us together to share a unique experience and exchange of energy. That is the power of theatre.
Theatre is a mirror—a reflection, if you will—of humankind, a dramatization of our everyday lives. As an actor, I have always felt that the Holy Grail was to move the audience by my performance, to accept the staged reality that my character and the play exhibited. In many ways, this belief is one-sided because it does not acknowledge the audience’s role. There is a definite give and take between actor and spectator. While the actors onstage present the life of the play’s characters, the audience members either open to receive and accept that reality or not. If both parties play their respective roles truthfully, an exchange takes place, and it is this exchange and participation in a communal experience that culminates in something powerful: change. That theatre can be a catalyst for change is a topic much debated by theorists and practitioners. But research has shown that theatre can in fact change peoples’ attitudes, thoughts, and, quite possibly, actions.
John William Somers of the Department of Drama at the University of Exeter in the UK writes that “recent research confirms that the imagined world can impact on the individual personal story.” He asserts that “drama’s power to change attitudes is rooted in the notion of intertextuality, the dynamic relationship and intertwining of stories, [and] the interpenetration of the performed story with the story which forms the personal identity of the individual.” Meredith Yanchak notes in her article “The Impact of Theatre Education” (2010) that “Burke, Foucault and numerous other philosophers have always held that theatre brings people together and help them to identify with each other.”
There are an increasing number of cultural institutions in El Paso serving up an excitingly wide array of theatrical arts. From longstanding groups such as the El Paso Opera, UTEP’s Dance and Theatre Department, UTEP’s Dinner Theatre, El Paso Playhouse, Kids-N-Co, Shakespeare on the Rocks, and Viva! El Paso to emerging organizations like Frontera Repertory Theatre Company (the region’s first professional Equity company), The Border Theater, Green Apple Theatre Collective, and The Charming Elusive, each one of these institutions presents theatrical experiences as varied and nuanced as our unique, vibrant community. In a world where our thoughts are economized and truncated into sound bites, slang acronyms, and social networking character limits, we must relish the opportunity to commune to a place where we can sit back and leisurely witness the unfolding of stories that externalize our inner thoughts and emotions. The experience may just help us better understand ourselves and the people around us.
Kathryn Smith-McGlynn is an El Paso-based actress, scholar and writer. She is a veteran actress of stage, television, and film and is a Visiting Lecturer at UTEP and Co-Founding Artistic Director/Executive Producer at Frontera Repertory Theatre Company.