Losing My Religion Glory in the Floorlamps: How the Theatre Became My Church
Both church and theatre demand from their followers the suspension of disbelief, and the ability to inhabit an imaginary set of circumstances in lieu of the known.
I remember losing God. It was largely painless, born of boredom and thirteen-year-old not-quite-logic; the most difficult part of the severance was the fact that Jesus dragged Santa Claus into the realm of fiction with him. I was a late bloomer about the Kris Kringle thing, but right on schedule with the atheist siren-song—at least among my thirteen-year-old peers, largely the progeny of hippies. In middle school, the only other vaguely religious members of my squad included two Hindi girls and a Buddhist; everybody else was “Pastafarian,” or fallen as hell.
I can picture the day Episcopalianism stopped making sense. Reverend Janice was gesturing through another interminable sermon while I sat in the choir under maternal mandate, cassocked and cotta’d. I’d been counting the wooden slats in the ceiling only to give up when I reached one hundred. Sometime on this Sunday that was like so many other Sundays, while my parents sat rapt in the fourth pew and the spirited but largely untrained singers belted, making sounds that would be unrivaled in my ear until three years later when I attended my first yoga class, it all seemed plain as day. Looking around church, to me the pageantry of the place suddenly seemed mimetic (a word I had just learned in pre-SAT prep): The church was always having to point back to its own bells and whistles to distract from the fact that the bread had not, in fact, been transformed into flesh.
In the dense metaphors and too-tidy morals, I suddenly heard fairy tale and fusty scroll. There was nothing, in short, that could remind me of—and therefore apply to—“real life.” And if religion was all a lie (went the thirteen-year-old non-logic), so must God be.
Shortly after I discarded Jesus, I joined the drama club. The Young Thespians at Montgomery Blair High met in a room that felt tacked onto the school like an afterthought; first you passed the art studio, then the photo lab, then—at the very end of the corridor—there was Drama. It was in that fluorescent-blasted space that I received the most significant dose of the only drug I’ve ever been addicted to: attention. When I was cast, as a freshman, in my high school’s production of Neil Simon’s Rumors, I threw myself into every aspect of the play—from memorizing my lines to losing sleep about the strapless dress the costume designer stuffed me in (or, more specifically, what I didn’t then have to hold it up). After a whirlwind set of giddy after-school rehearsals, I got to play a drunk (!) before an auditorium packed with laughing peers and parents. By the time the curtain fell, I’d been baptized anew.
A few weeks later, a dear friend invited me to the traveling production of Rent when it came to the Warner Theatre downtown, and the world broke further open. When the final chords of Jonathan Larson’s score sounded in the pit, I was confirmed. Sobbing through my standing O, I told myself: yes. This, all glorious this, this, this; in this I believe.
While I no longer prayed in a way my family recognized, I started giving up as many weekends as my parents would let me to this other, worshipful practice—though I couldn’t sell Mom and Dad on the parallels. One night, we had a fight about my self-declared atheism. “Everybody needs to believe in something,” my father said. “You’ll come around,” my mother insisted. “Someday. We all come back to church.”
I didn’t have the language at fourteen to explain that I found the differences between Reverend Janice and Mrs. O’Connor (director of the drama club) to be largely semantic, but later, in college, I’d stumble onto a clarifying gospel. In his essays on cosmic wonder, Varieties of Scientific Experience, Carl Sagan writes: “By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night.” Something in this sentence, itself a capsule thesis for the rest of the book, clarified for me how God and Theatre (or anything awe-inspiring) might occupy the same quadrant of a person’s imagination.
According to Carl Sagan’s arithmetic, God didn’t have to be an object. “He” could just be a feeling: wonder. I imagined telling my parents that theatre, unlike church, gave me wonder and awe in spades. Instead, I probably said something sixteen-y, like: “All religion should be banished from the earth.”
I’m seventeen and my feet are bleeding after an African dance class, I’m twenty and keening about my dead loved ones in a room full of strangers, I’m sacrificing up my most shameful secrets, I’m slicing through veins for applause.
When I come home for vacations, my mother asks me to come with her to church. “They miss you at Grace,” she tells me, and I scoff. I do everything possible to sleep through her 8:00 a.m. Sunday wake-up call, her song that’s so familiar: “Cherubs, rise and shine!”
When I reflect on my idols now, it seems odd that I chose my second cathedral for all the reasons I eschewed Episcopalianism: I fell for a new “church” that thrived on the pageantry that had so irked me in the apostolic setting; for a “god” who necessitated plenty of hyperbolic posturing. For both church and theatre eventually demand from their followers the suspension of disbelief, and the ability to inhabit an imaginary set of circumstances in lieu of the known and concrete. Your logical brain is sacrificed when you stand to receive communion, and when you’re onstage (or in the best kind of audience).
Both drama and Christianity will eventually suck up any free time and spare change you feel like volunteering. They are each relentless, concerned with the blood, the sweat, the tears of their penitent. Director Mike Nichols once described the job of acting as akin to “opening a vein.” And I have taken just enough acting classes in the Western tradition to know that such rhetorical posturing is par for the course.
The best teachers I’ve had inspire cults of personality. I had one coach who elicited actual “Amen”s from his pupils, and spoke to us from a director’s chair that no one else was allowed to sit in, pulpit-style. Acting teachers also, like the most evangelical clergyfolk, tend to tut and groan and speak in tongues; they encourage group chanting and sing-a-longs. In the Meisner technique I most recently studied, my teacher would sermonize at each of us for long minutes after we’d perform, speaking until he got to the meat of an effectively spiritual diagnosis. “Be more truthful,” he would goad us, from his pulpit chair. Another way of saying this? Make your confession.
For acting, like church, also requires self-flagellation and the mining of trauma. When an actor is trained in the Strasburg school (a pedagogical descendant of Stanislavski’s famous “Method”), she is asked to get in touch with the darkest parts of her personal history in order to apply her own “lived experience” to a character who may have a similar background. This concept is romantic in theory, but sometimes troubling in practice. You’ve probably heard the rumors that surround those most serious and slightly mad Method actors; from Dustin Hoffman’s sleep-deprivation as he prepared to play Marathon Man, to Daniel Day-Lewis’ chopping wood and keeping to a cabin while he researched his role in Lincoln. The industry often showers awards on that kind of dedication, which involves a mental alchemy not unlike a physical transfiguration.
To act, you condition both your body and brain to behave as they would in whatever you take to be “the real world,” for the sake of a fake one. And—exasperatingly or magically depending on your own sense of awe—it often pays off; the most compelling actor does appear to sacrifice her whole self. And she is exalted for doing so. Celebrated and sainted.
I can also picture the day that theatre stopped making its perfect sense to me, though really it is not one day, it’s dozens of them. At some point I began to clock that not every show I saw could move me like I was moved when I first saw Rent, and not every production I was in would fill me with light and vigor like my first turn in Rumors did . At some point, I began to notice tears in the costumes, holes in the set, cracks in the mirage. One day it was another star-studded commercial enterprise trumping something small and brave that had managed to sneak onto Broadway; another day it was a rent check bouncing because I continuously turned down steady work to wake at dawn and drag myself to open calls. Even the best-case scenario in theatre has serious drawbacks: I recently met an actor I look up to who told me that he couldn’t afford tickets to his own shows.
On the most recent faith-killing night, I went to see a play downtown. It was in a theatre that was only a few blocks away from another where I’d once had an out-of-body, ultra-transforming experience as a freshman witness. “Too earnest for me,” I said to my companion at intermission, but didn’t clock the irony of my musing until much later, after the cocktails were gone.
My belief in this, this, this, in short, has been tested. Reasonable friends are dropping like flies, getting “real” jobs, moving to less expensive cities. Yet I knew going in that theatre would demand sacrifice; that ablutions would be required. (The characters in Rent sang it so!) What I couldn’t have known was that worshipping my new god has required a lifestyle that often obliterates, or obfuscates, the “awe” that brought me here. I begin to wonder: What will happen if I fully lose my faith in this newer religion, as I did the first one? What will replace this church?
“Everybody needs to believe in something,” my father once said. Okay—but how do you retain your faith in one thing forever? And what if that “something” in question doesn’t always believe in you back?
“All the world’s a stage,” says Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players; they all have their exits and entrances, and one man, in his time, plays many parts.” Despite the dreamy metaphorical premise, people forget that the ending of this famous monologue is brutally mortal. There is no ascension for the player; no final bow, no standing ovation. He merely fades into nothing: “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
These days, when I speak these lines to a panel of blank-faced auditors (for this is my audition monologue), I think of the crucial and cruelest distinction between loving a Christian God and loving Drama: Theatre, unlike Christianity, cannot promise you the afterlife you want. The medium is, by nature, ephemeral; the curtain is destined to fall.
Some days I daydream about moving to some other city, or writing in a garret, or running an inn, or fleeing to grad school. I call my mother and put on the determined, cheery voice that every struggling artist with concerned folks knows to use, the voice that refuses to suffer disappointment. My mother, meanwhile, has become head of the Vestry at her church. When we talk, she’ll puzzle out grievances, speaking of the bureaucratic hiccups that come with running an institution the way I want to speak about what’s become frustrating in my career. She writes emails and wrangles meetings for Grace now, in addition to sitting in that fourth pew, rapt. When Reverend Janice dies, she is on the search committee to find a new priest.
“I didn’t realize it would be so much work,” she admits, when I won’t.
(This, this, this.)
Thornton Wilder makes it the tidiest in Our Town. When a recently deceased Emily Webb asks the Stage Manager if “anyone realizes life as they live it? Every, every minute?” When the Stage manager replies: “The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”
Saints and poets, who retain a reverence for action, who sacrifice themselves to principles and some sanctimony, who observe. Yes, perhaps. As anything becomes more familiar, the religious sensibility maybe must alchemize from constant wonder into something else, something that can stomach the grind, show up day after day to actually run the church, or manage the rejection. On the sunniest days, in the best rehearsal rooms, I want to tell thirteen- and seventeen- and twenty-nine- and fifty-two-year-old all of us: Who’s to say that this transformation isn’t a deepening, as opposed to a souring?
Carl Sagan, for all his familiarity with the movements of the stars, never stopped studying them. He wrote thousands of words because he believed so fiercely in that other man-made conveyor belt for awe which sits beside religion and art; he was a disciple to his science.
This, this, this, on the best days: I hope to retain an echo of that original “wonder” that gripped me, even when the real spirit steps out for a smoke break. After all, God, to Sagan, is not merely “wonder” but a practice; his God is contingent on the ritual of “glancing up.” When you doubt like Thomas, or a character in a Shanley play, you can still and always gesture, right? You can glance up.
Today I went to a rehearsal in a room with big windows. No one was getting paid enough and everyone was tired. We worried that it wasn’t meaningful, or perfect. During our break, we complained about the plays we’d seen that had failed to transform us, or rattle us loose.
Still, there was a moment in this rehearsal. I have to remind myself to slow down and look for such moments these days, and I must look closer and longer than I’ve had to before. But for the space of one line—which is all it really takes—I heard an actress nail a feeling from some words I’d written, performing a passion so it looked more true. And I felt what you feel when you’re dedicated to a higher thing. That peace that is sourced only from faith in a cause.