27 September 2016

Holy Actors

Lately I have been studying up on Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre practicioner who is known for advocating a particular style known as the Poor Theatre, and I came upon an interview he gave in 1964 titled “The Theatre's New Testament.” As someone interested in matters both theatrical and theological, you can imagine I was intrigued.

Historically, theatre and religion have always been linked. While there is evidence to suggest that a form of theatre might have been practiced by tribal peoples before recorded history, we know for sure that an organized theatre was established by the Ancient Greeks for the purpose of honoring their gods. (And, indeed, it is into this sort of a theatre that Paul's companions Gaius and Aristarchus are dragged by the mob after the silversmiths take issue with Christian teaching, in Acts 19.) Theatre transferred to the Christian church in the form of morality, miracle, and mystery plays (mystery plays were typically about the lives of the saints or biblical stories). Pageants are still done to this day.

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet once said, “When you come into a theatre, you have to be willing to say, ‘We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what is going on in this world.’” You might be tempted to say that theatre is for this life and church is for the next, but I would argue there is substantial cross-over; there are spiritual gifts in the theatre, and there are human lessons in the church.

Grotowski defines theatre as “what takes place between spectator and actor.” All the other elements of what we might normally associate with theatre (costumes, lights, sets, etc.) are, to him, superfluous; he defines the use of such elements as “rich theatre”—rich in tangible resources and, perhaps, nothing more. Thus he advocates a “poor theatre”—this simple relationship between the actor and the spectator; a basic communion. It's the Quaker form of theatre, so to speak. Henry David Thoreau's dictum “Simplify, simplify” comes to mind. Distilling theatre or religion down to its essentials makes its meaning stronger. We are forced to look at ourselves and each other in a new way.

The “holy actor” is a major component of Grotowski's Poor Theatre, and he states that the actor must be willing to perform a “self-sacrifice” in order to “eliminate any disturbing elements,” a sort of purging. The “holy spectator,” in turn, is invited to do the same: “The spectator understands, consciously or unconsciously, that such an act is an invitation to him to do the same thing, and this often arouses opposition or indignation, because our daily efforts are intended to hide the truth about ourselves not only from the world, but also ourselves.”

And, for those who believe, those daily efforts might be to hide the truth from God. Such people can get really good at painting themselves in saintly colors to impress God, only to realize God already knows the truth about them better than they do. They—we—are human. They—we—have faults. Mistakes happen. Grotowski goes on: “We try to escape the truth about ourselves, whereas here [in the theatre] we are invited to stop and take a closer look. We are afraid of being changed into pillars of salt if we turn around, like Lot's wife.”

Grotowski seems to have a pretty good handle on his religion, despite claiming to be an unbeliever. “Just as only a great sinner can become a saint according to the theologians..., in the same way the actor's wretchedness can be transformed into a kind of holiness.” Who can become a holy actor? We are all capable of it, inasmuch as we can own up to who we are.

So, who are the holy actors in a church? I suppose they would be the leaders, such as the pastor, elders, any who have taken it upon themselves to shepherd the flock in some way. And the holy spectator, the one hoping to be transformed in some way, is the congregant, the walk-in off the street. We can be both, too; actors go see shows. Grotowski says, “We are concerned with the spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself.” He promotes a life-long learning that engages not only the mind, but the spirit as well. And shouldn't churches want that, too?

I do think we should all strive to be “holy actors” in some way. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The road is not easy, but the rewards are beyond our imagination—whether we are Christian or not.

“The Theatre's New Testament” translated by J├Ârgen Andersen and Judy Barba.

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