Theatre: Creating Persons of Culture

Isaac Arackaparambil sdb

It is said of Ben Kingsley, the versatile film-star, that Ben realized his dream to become an actor, thanks to the encouragement he received from his parents. Fr. Hedwig Louis in his book God Here and Now narrates that when Ben was young, he was inspired by his father who was a doctor, and wanted to go to medical school. However, the summer after he graduated from high school, he attended a Shakespearean play, Richard III, and got totally absorbed in it. During the performance Ben began to imagine himself in the role with such intensity that, drained of energy, he fainted. After the show his parents picked him up at the auditorium and informed him that he had been given an appointment for an interview at medical school. But Ben said to them, “This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do.” His father looked at him thoughtfully, then said, to the future star of Gandhi: “All right. I will encourage you.” And thus Ben got started on his illustrious acting career.

In theatre, Ben discovered the medium in which he could realize the complete or at least a satisfying measure of his self-expression. One of the manifestations of inner confidence in individuals is the ability one has of expressing oneself. Too many interviews are failed and job opportunities lost, because of the inability of individuals of expressing themselves appropriately. A lot of misunderstandings occur in relationships because of the inability of individuals to express their points of view in a way that is understandable to the other. Effective leadership rests on the shoulder of confident self-expression. Entire nations are shaped by the ability of their leaders to express their vision in a way that moves its governments and citizens to adopt and execute whatever leads to the fulfilment of that vision. Religious congregations were founded by charismatic leaders who had an unlimited dose of self-expression up their sleeves.

Self-expression is a vehicle that stands good in any circumstance of life. When one learns the art of self-expression, one also finds it easier to cultivate the capacity to understand others in their forms of self-expression. And if one is in possession of both these skills – one: of self-expression, and the other: of understanding others in their expressions of themselves – one becomes a cultured human being. Jesus was the most cultured human being on earth, and he used this strength in ministering to all the people who came to him. He brought them health and wholeness because of these traits which he cultivated as he grew in the school of Joseph and Mary. As Salesians it is absolutely important for us to hone both these skills. Only then can we call ourselves cultured. Otherwise we stand to remain mere informed individuals with our degrees and qualifications, but without a proper sense of judgment and understanding, and worse still we lose the art of being human. We fail in ministry.

Theatre provides the platform from which an individual can develop his or her skills of self-expression to a measure that builds inner confidence. Don Bosco knew best that youngsters need platforms for self-expression. No wonder he encouraged, games, music, theatre, and numerous other forms of expression that found place in his educational style. In my experience in youth ministry, I have found that the majority of the youngsters I have interacted with manifest a sense of fear in expressing themselves in public forums. They often need to be coaxed out of their shells, fears, inhibitions, and blocks that are posed by their peers in order to stand out and make a statement. My own inner confidence grew thanks to the opportunities I was given to act, sing and recite on stage. If it were not for theatre, I would not flower into the personality I have shaped myself into today. My own experience of growing in confidence, thanks to theatre, made me make the platform of theatre available to the youngsters I was put in charge of during my practical training, among my classmates during the student years of theology, and even now as we train our aspirants at Kapadvanj. I have seen people growing not just in confidence, but also in team spirit, relationships, discipline, multi-tasking, alertness, diction, expression, smartness and all other trappings that make one an expressive and confident person.

Theatre also provides the ropes that assist individuals to come to a fair understanding of others in their expressions of themselves. In fact theatre dramatizes the dynamic between expression and understanding. In theatre one sees that scripts that are ‘fossilized’ within the pages of a book come alive in the characters that play out the message in those scripts. The more one exposes oneself to the medium of theatre, the more one begins to understand the drama of human communication, the ah ah of human tragedy, the ha ha of human comedy, the la la of human melody, the saga of human history, and the jigsaw of human mystery. It helps both artists and audience to enter into an intellectual dialogue in which perceptions to life and issues are challenged. It stirs sentiments of patriotism as well as passions that spark revolutions for causes that need to be addressed. It makes available a space for relaxation and a sense of wonder amidst the stress in life. In short theatre reminds society of its humanity.

Theatre has helped many a nation preserve its culture especially when cultures faced the threat of annihilation from enemies. The story of Pope John Paul II tells of how as a young man, Karol Woytela dedicated time to theatre and was also instrumental in taking the theatre underground during the onslaught of the second world war, for the sole purpose of preserving and promoting Polish culture which was on the brink of eclipse due to the repressive policies of the Nazis. A similar story repeated itself in Sarajevo. During the war which broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mid 1992. It was the Youth Theatre directed by Nermin Tulić that fully participated in the defense of the city and culture against aggression and primitivism.

Theatre has helped not only to preserve culture, but it also depicts how life styles have changed, while also subtly being responsible for those changes. Hence, if we as educators happen to keep ourselves out of touch with this dynamic medium, we gradually loose touch with the reality of the young who today are the most dramatic of human beings, and who not only script but enact theatre on the stage of life. Hence we need to get back to viewing theatre, appreciating this form of art and promoting it in our settings. It is consoling to observe that in some of our schools and formation houses we have carried on the tradition of putting up plays on auspicious occasions. But we seem to be happy doing the same old musicals and plays in cycles. We need to summon our creative sides to write new scripts, compose new songs and stage plays that are not limited to the classics but those that speak the idiom of our times.

We have got to be participants in the drama of life by immersing our intellects in the ongoing dialogue with the changing culture of our times, especially when the culture being created by popular media goes against the spirit of the Gospel. We as Salesians need to enter main stream media and promote the values of Christ’s kingdom by creating value-themed-theatre, songs, movies, and invest in making the gospel more attractive than the attractions that absorb this techno savvy generation of youngsters in our day. In doing so, I believe we will be growing to become cultured as persons in the first place, and effective as God’s ministers to his people.

I propose the following in order to promote theatre in our settings:

1. Create theatrical resources on the lines of the twelve diamond values launched by Fr. Glenford Lowe through AVEC.

2. Have a media club of interested Salesians who are not necessarily in the media commission, who could come together with lay collaborators and youth, and have a media production workshop in English as well as in the vernacular, on contemporary issues, biblical plays, music videos, power point presentations, documentaries and whatever else, to generate a value-projecting-media as a response and counter culture to the damaging influences of the evil and sin promoted in popular media today.

3. Have a Province Year for Theatre just as we have International Years dedicated to some issue. During this year we could celebrate Theatre by making it a point to watch theatrical performances when staged in the cities. We could create new theatrical resources and present them in various venues during the year. You could add your suggestions.

4. Collect all the original theatrical productions that have been put up around the province in the yester years, and make videos of the same for wider distribution.

5. Have a system in which when any institution makes a theatrical presentation, the entire presentation is video-graphed professionally so that the efforts are not lost and more over, so that the efforts need not be repeated if one feels that a recording should have been done in retrospect.

6. Make a province or regional library of theatrical material, audio, video, script, costumes, backdrops, light and sound equipment so that every house has access to these whenever they need to make a presentation. It would also generate a sense of solidarity in the region/province, and save on replication of expenses if every institution desired to have all the equipment.

May Don Bosco who saw it wise to offer to the young a medium of expression through theatre, help us preserve and promote this legacy for the growth and benefit of our own beings into cultured humans, and for the integral growth of the young.

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