A Well-Performed Play

By Morgan Crain, Director of Student Life

My hometown has an annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, with weeks of three rotating plays performed by professional actors. Every time I attend, I marvel at the range of viewers. People from all walks of life, some of whom you really wouldn’t expect to come, get together to enjoy the classic plays. This is less of a surprise when you realize that theatre’s highbrow reputation conceals its incredible accessibility. Even those works considered most intellectual today, like the plays of Shakespeare and or the operas of Rossini, were the popular entertainment of the past, often enjoyed by members of the working-class public. Theatre is an approachable art form, and as such, it has an integral place in a well-rounded education. Like all art, drama is a way of expressing a theme, and its accessibility makes it a wonderful way for students to engage with important concepts as members of the audience. It even provides them with opportunities to actively interpret the theme and thereby guides them to mature as artists. Participating from the stage and from the balcony enhances the student’s appreciation of beauty.

A play is simply an artistic representation of a theme. Like the novelist, the playwright chooses the theme and shapes the characters, setting, plot, and dialogue to examine it. Plays offer an unrivaled opportunity to examine life, for as actors incarnate characters within a fixed plot, the audience sees the consequences of predetermined actions and words. For instance, to examine the worthiness of Victorian ideals of perfection in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde sets stereotypical characters – the perfect gentleman, the loveable rogue, the society girl, and the country ingénue – into an absurd and unlikely situation, as both men use the pseudonym of Ernest. As the characters face each challenge, their reactions highlight the problems with each ideal. The very words spoken by each character can be shaped intentionally to appropriately reflect the theme.

Where life is messy and convoluted, theatre idealizes conflicts so that they can be clearly examined in abstract. To facilitate this, a well-designed production unites insightful plot and perfect words with a striking visual impression from the sets, costumes, and choreography and perhaps with an apt piece of music. Combining various aspects of many arts with carefully shaped dialogue and plot allows theatre to fully explore the meaning and the beauty of the chosen theme.

Frequenting the theatre allows students to refine their love of beauty by contextualizing great works and by fostering appreciation for the arts. Great plays are often taught in literature class, but because of theatre’s combination of the arts, they are best experienced in performance. A great play can, of course, be enjoyed when read, but the full experience is lacking. Being genuinely frightened by the witches’ prophecy lends an entirely different level of gravity to Macbeth; hearing the heroic iambic pentameter brings home the tragedy of Henry’s usurpation in Richard II. After seeing a great performance, you will never read the play the same way again. The more plays a student enjoys in this way, the better he can contextualize each one. Seeing multiple productions of Hamlet opens his eyes to various nuances of interpretation and allows him to enjoy that play more fully. Experiencing each play at a deeper level makes it much easier to understand, enjoy, and love the work. Moreover, the tragedy he witnessed in Romeo and Juliet will influence his experience of West Side Story, his appreciation of the themes of Oedipus Rex might shed light on King Lear, and his enjoyment of My Fair Lady will help him relish Pygmalion. Any person can become a better audience member, for attending more plays makes it easier to participate in the art created based on shared cultural knowledge. Developing a habit of theatre appreciation from a young age builds an imaginative dictionary that the student can use to understand various works of art for the rest of his life.

Furthermore, theatre provides an excellent opportunity for a student to learn to express himself artistically. Theatre is a unique art form in that it relies on participation from a variety of people, each of whom influence every performance. The playwright does not have sole control of the theme’s expression. He provides a script, but the director interprets it with his every decision. He casts actors who align with his vision of their roles; he cuts lines or rearranges scenes if necessary to help the audience understand his opinion; he chooses designers for the sets, lights, sound, and costumes in order to perfect the setting. Those designers further influence the theme as they set the stage for the production. The stagehands then facilitate each scene so that the production proceeds in the planned fashion. Of course, the actors remain the focal point for the audience as they work to make their characters understandable and express each line appropriately. In theatre, everyone’s participation is a necessary part of the successful production. That’s why you’ll never see the same performance twice. Even if the director works with a play a second time, the different actors, designers, and technicians will result in a completely different expression of the theme. Each person’s effort influences the artistic expression of the group.

This makes theatre an outstanding way to begin one’s own journey. As students participate in a dramatic production, they are joining a great tradition of self-expression in a guided way. In every art form, creating beauty requires the discipline of refining one’s skills before original thoughts can be effectively expressed. Theatre offers that discipline, because a play provides a theme and a framework to understand it. Students do not have to invent the perfect words of a persuasive speech; they can hear what eloquence sounds like by delivering Antony’s funeral oration. They can learn to select music to achieve the desired effect in a scene; they can paint sets before trying to design them. First, they study to express another’s theme in an original way; eventually, they may express their own themes successfully.

A well-performed play is a powerful experience, both from the perspective of the audience and from that of the performer. Good theatre is great art, and as such it plays an important role in a student’s education. Seeing performances is the first step, because this is the best way to understand and analyze any dramatic piece, but it also provides unique opportunities for the student to participate in the artistic expression. As such, it is a great way to mature as an artist and as a viewer, and it always, be it at a Shakespeare festival or a high school production, brings people together to enjoy a new perspective.