(Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.)
And so we did it: Rehearsals almost every night, then performances, and may I thank heaven that the theater's only five minutes away? Culminating every night with skirmishes in the bathroom over make-up removal with a squirming girl who somehow withstands being tossed around rooms and put in wrestling holds by her brothers but apparently experiences mortal injury when a washcloth touches her face.
As for me, I did my part stitching on costumes and watching the kids in the Green Room, but mostly I spent a lot of time down at the theater these days, doing what I do best: people-watching and pondering life.
Some of it was great. I saw parents who willingly sacrificed hours of what they once knew as “free time” for their children's sake.
There were scads of teens in the cast and crew, kids who are smart, talented, committed and unfailingly sweet to the little ones scurrying about under their feet.
Some of it, of course, wasn't so great: parents pushing kids into doing something they don't want to do to meet some mysterious unmet need of their own.
And over it all was the director, a young man who was very good with the children not to speak of rather interesting to watch over the course of the production. As I sat in the back of the theater at the end of rehearsals (they were “closed” rehearsals, but I figure if they tell me rehearsal's going to be over at 9:30, and it's ten and they're still going with my daughter in there, I can sit in the theater to wait if I darn well please.), I'd watch him give his “notes” – the nightly critique, a theater practice heretofore unknown to me, and, it struck me, something that would be well-adapted to home life. At the end of every day, I figured, I could have the cast gather in the living room and I'd give – notes:
“Christopher, your entrance was a little late today – please listen for your cue better tomorrow – you remember – it's that loud buzzing emanating from the clock next to your bed?”
“David, you're not giving enough to me. I want more. Saying “I don't know” in answer to every question isn't doing it for me. Project! – let me know what's going on inside your character's head – make it bigger!”
“Katie. Katie, you're doing a fabulous job and we're all really proud of you, except….(pause for rest of cast to chuckle knowingly)…you overdid it a little in that early scene. You remember, doll. When you didn't like the kind of cereal you were given? I don't think the moment really called for a loud scream and rush offstage. I need more subtlety from you next time, okay?”
And maybe, if things are going really badly, I can be like this director, shake my head and moan, “My empire is crumbling!”
Like parenting, directing appears to occasionally involve blackmail, as well, considering what I witnessed at the end of one particularly long afternoon.
The play had been presented during the day for groups of school children, and the word came down near the end of the show that the director wanted to see the Oompa-Loompas in the house after the show.
I knew what it would be about. As the production has gone on, the Oompa-Loompas, all 19 of them ranging in ages from 5 to 10, have gotten progressively more difficult to control in the Green Room. They have to be there an hour before curtain, but then they don't do anything until the very end of the first act…so of course they get restless.
Sure enough. After the buses left, the Oompa-Loompas, most still in the makeup that gives their faces the appearance of somewhat deranged raccoons, filed out, sat obediently in the seats and waited for the director. He emerged from the wings, stood on the stage and started making a speech in this sonorous, slightly affected theater voice he has about how he's having bad reports from the moms in the green room about Oompa-Loompa behavior and how everyone better shape up.
“And if you don't,” he finished, eying them very solemnly, ” There will be no – crayons in the Green Room after today! Is that understood?” And he stalked off the stage.
A little sympathy, if you please, for the struggling director who must threaten to deprive his actors of their crayons to get them to cooperate.
So what does this have to do with spirituality?
Give me a second. I'll figure something out. I always do.
Actually, it's not difficult. Amid all the other thoughts about sacrifice and community that emerge from the experience of theater, I'm absorbed once again in reflections on creativity.
In the days, long ago and unlamented, when I taught high school theology, I often began discussions of morality by talking about what distinguishes human beings from other animals.
Once we moved past the reflexive reaction of whatever village skeptic was lounging in the back of the room that day, usually a young man of some native intelligence but precious little learning who maintained that there was no difference and, in fact, hamsters were probably a lot more sentient than human beings, we could make the list that centered, of course, on matters like the ability to truly love, free will and self-consciousness.
But the most powerful distinction and that which helped them see what it meant to be made in the image of God was creativity.
Certainly, animals construct things, but do so, as they do everything else, out of instinct. Birds don't choose what kind of nest to build. All members of a certain species build the same kind of nest, and so on.
But human beings can create.
Certainly not like God who creates ex nihilo, but as Dorothy Sayers notes in her essay “The Image of God,” perhaps it is the power to create that the author of Genesis refers to when he describes human beings as made in the image of God:
It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he [the author] has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the 'image' of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, 'God created.' The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things.
And later, beginning with an allusion to a poem by Robert Browning, she says,
'I mix it with two in my thought'; this is the statement of the fact of universal experience that the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material form. Without the thought, though the material parts already exist, the form does not and cannot. The creation is not a product of the matter and is not simply a rearrangement of the matter. The amount of matter in the universe is limited, and its possible rearrangements, though the sum of them would amount to astronomical figures, is also limited. But no such limitation of numbers applies to the creation of works of art. The poet is not obliged, as it were, to destroy the material of a Hamlet in order to create a Falstaff, as a carpenter must destroy a tree form to create a table form. The components of the material world are fixed; those of the world of imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before. This represents the nearest approach we experience to creation out of nothing, and we conceive of the act of absolute creation as being an act analogous to that of the creative artist. Thus Berdyaev is able to say: “God created the world by imagination.”
I once received a letter from a writer friend who spoke of his struggle to get beyond the “veneer” as he put it, of some aspects of his life in order to write more honestly. When I read his words, they struck a real chord with me, for that is exactly what I have been trying to do over the past couple of years, and more intensely during the past three months, and point to one more reason why I see writing as a spiritual act.
Spirituality is essentially about being oneself in the presence of God – which means all the time, if you think about it. Effective writing involves many things – clarity, purpose, control, facility with language and imagination, but it also requires honesty and the courage to confront and describe the truth.
This is not about divinizing art or espousing a moralistic aesthetic. In another essay “Toward a Christian Esthetic,” Sayers articulates a vision of art that is neither mindless entertainment nor moralistic manipulation, both of which lead to a “falsification of consciousness,” not authenticity. It is, rather what she refers to as a Trinitarian aesthetic in which the work of art reveals truth and is, in fact interwoven with what it reveals:
The poet will say: 'my poem is the expression of my experience.' But if you then say, 'What experience?' he will say, “I can't tell you anything about it except what I have said in the poem – the poem is the experience.” The Son and the Father are one; the poet himself did not know what his experience was until he created the poem which revealed his own experience to himself.
And that the end for the observer, the reader or the listener is that there is
The recognition of a truth that tells us something about ourselves that we had not been always saying, something that puts a new knowledge of ourselves within our grasp. It is new, startling, and perhaps shattering, and yet it comes to us with a sense of familiarity. We did no know it before, but the moment the poet has shown it to us, we know that, somehow or other we had always really known it.
In other words, it is through “images” offered to us by the artist of integrity that we come to understand reality, just as it is through Christ, the “image of the invisible God” that we know Reality.
The meanderings and lengthy citations are not my usual fare in this space, but if you look back, you see a series of writings of undoubtedly irritating diversity, reflections of a riotous, highly undisciplined mind. But I offer these today partly because I think Dorothy Sayers' theological writings are well worth your time, but also because we live in an era of incredible, pervasive degradation of the human person on every imaginable level, a culture in which we're not only turning from the Garden but positively running from it as fast as we can, afraid to see the beauty lying therein that was created for us by a God who loves us passionately. It seems that reclaiming creativity as a spiritual act, not in the Romantic-divinize-the-artist sense, but in the way Sayers describes, is a step back towards the potential God created us to fulfill.
So I sit in a darkened theater watching amateurs of varying degrees of talent but equal amounts of enthusiasm act out a story about greedy children, each of whom, in the inevitable Raold Dahl tradition, gets his or her rather gruesome just desserts.
At seven o'clock, the stage is bare and arid. Thirty minutes later, a small world teems in that same space, believable, not because it is perfect or flawless, but rather because a vision that has a connection to What Is – even if it something as simple as the price of ingratitude – been given life where before there was nothing.
It is a simple thing. Words are tossed, making their way through light and darkness, bodies disappear through a trapdoor, music swells, children miss their cues and a director shakes his head, yet smiles still at all that has come to be.