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Fifteen Lessons on Theatre from Maureen Shea

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Despite ever-present prognostications on the topic, theatre isn’t dying. Our craft doesn’t die because its ingredients are the essence of humanity: storytelling, teaching, and learning.

That being said, theatre isn’t deathless. Our work is death de facto. Every performance is a danse macabre. Or, as scholar Robin Bernstein put it: “We gather in theatres to watch people on stage—but we know that their aliveness, the very quality we came to see, confers vulnerability.… To gather in theatre is to share that vulnerability, that appearance-through-disappearance, living-dying.” Paradoxically, death itself is another reason why theatre is alive.

So, if every performance is an act of living-dying, what powers that process? How does the hyphen become a bridge between the two words, the two worlds? As best as I can tell, the answer is making. When we make, we keep the cycle moving.

And the way into making is through mentorship.

Mentorship is our craft’s agnostic theology of intellectual and creative reincarnation. I manifest —or reject—my mentors’ lessons, then pass them along and pass through them with everything I make, and so on. Thus, these lessons are not static things; they grow greener with the seasons, and they brown and mold alongside us.

Maureen Shea was a teacher, director, and mentor to me. She died on 20 September 2022, at the age of seventy-one. In addition to directing college productions at Emerson and Virginia Tech, she directed at the Theater Offensive, the Company of Women, and New York Live Arts, among others. Maureen collaborated closely with the late legends Kristen Linklater and Robbie McCauley.

As I reflect on Maureen’s life, impact, and practice as an educator and artist at Emerson College, where she was the longtime department chair (and where I went to undergrad), I am struck—and, frankly, stuck—by the profoundness of Maureen’s force.

How, with words, can someone describe—truly describe—a mountain? Such is the challenge of honoring Maureen.

And so, I will use the tools my mentor taught me, and I’ll make something here to share.

I will simply break it into beats—I’ll score it out—and share some lessons that Maureen, my teacher, shared with me. I have assembled and sorted these lessons after harvesting my notebooks, emails, and scribblings in the margins of scripts.

This essay is adapted from remarks I delivered at Maureen’s memorial gathering held on 1 March 2023 at the Cutler Majestic Theater, a block from the Boston Common. I share them here as an act of theatre commoning.

A man stands at a podium on stage and speaks.

Alex speaks at Maureen’s memorial.

As far as I know, outside of her doctoral dissertation, Maureen never registered her thoughts on theatre in a book or monograph. So, by sharing her lessons here on HowlRound, I settle her thoughts into timelessness alongside the craft of theatre.

Maureen’s death was a zig—we no longer have her. This essay is a zag—her lessons will live on through you, HowlRound readers.

So, here we go:

1. The Potential of the Expressive Arts

The first lesson that Maureen taught was that heightened stories, lives, and circumstances are attainable through the tools of symbolism, naturalism, and poetry. Such is the potential of the expressive arts, hence the relevance of theatre schools.

2. Eulogies, Obituaries, and Plays are Conversations

The second lesson is one that Maureen taught me after her stunning tribute to the beloved Emerson director, teacher, and department chair Bob Colby: Eulogies are conversations and so, if I feel nervous, flummoxed, or lost in my memorializing, I just need to settle into this conversation we’re having together about the love for Maureen.

This second lesson not only applies to eulogies, of course. Plays are also conversations.

3. The Theatre is a Meeting House

The theatre is a meeting house for conversation. That was a third lesson Maureen taught me.

She cleverly engaged the term “meeting house” deliberately after I was hired to teach theatre at a Quaker school.

Even in gold-leaf cathedrals of theatre like Broadway houses or the Cutler Majestic, what makes this theatre reverent and relevant is that it is a palace for meeting; meeting yourself, ideas, hopes, and—most prerequisite-ly—each other. Theatre is about all the life around us—this, Maureen insisted on.

4. Give Characters the Dignity of Being Real

The fourth lesson Maureen taught me is that because the theatre is a meeting house, we must always give characters “the dignity of being real.” Poetic humanism—or humanism as poetry—made Maureen a great director and a spirit-led teacher.

“I want people in a room, not actors on a stage,” she would say. Theatre as conversation is not a way of simplifying the making of theatre, but it is a deeper calling that requires more listening from us artists.

Maureen demanded this sort of deep listening and awareness when we collaborated—and she taught it into us so we could use it as a fixed point of truth once we left Emerson’s boutique square block in Boston. Before we have anything to say, we must listen to the world around us.

Mentorship is our craft’s agnostic theology of intellectual and creative reincarnation.

5. Sentimentality and Self-Consciousness are the Enemies of all Art

A fifth lesson I learned when Maureen was my director in Horton Foote’s wistful memory play, The Actor at Emerson. As a second-year student-actor, I was fearful of the titular role’s vulnerability. “Fear is the primary component of any actor’s life,” Maureen would counsel. “Casting is a vote of confidence,” she would assure.

“I’m here for you, I will catch you,” she said, “but you have to jump off the edge. Sentimentality and self-consciousness are the enemies of all art.”

“By being in the room, you’re telling me you want to do it, so do it,” she would say with an intonation that was concurrently confrontational like a mob boss and charming like Jiminy Cricket.

6. Cherish the Gift of Uncushioned Honesty

Sixth, Maureen provided a valuable resource to Emerson—an increasingly rare resource that’s necessary for any theatre school: honest critiques.

As higher education is increasingly scrutinized, sanitized, and branded, Maureen was unabashed and brave in offering her assessment of the longitude and latitude of a student. She was unintimidated in giving the gift of uncushioned honesty. This tendency was all the more radical as she operated in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

Maureen’s gusto was a gift. Her antennae for casting were never cliche, status quo, or safe: she had an affinity for sniffing out the potential of misfits, wallflowers, wounded warriors, backbenchers, and enigmas. Those who navigated her honesty walked away as more capable and more confident.

7. Work on a Play like a Potter

Seventh, Maureen taught me to work on a play like a potter works on a wheel. Charge, carve, pound, push, and wrestle the play as one would earthy clay.

Get it under fingernails, slap it, pinch it up, crush it down, cradle it, throw it on the table, and finesse its lines. Plays are not delicate ships in a bottle; they’re materials of dust and dirt because they’re matters of humans.

Plays are containers of energy and space. The more one fights, dances, and submits to the play, the more energy it will contain.

Plays are not delicate ships in a bottle; they’re materials of dust and dirt because they’re matters of humans.

8. Maintain Absurdity and Silliness

An eighth lesson was that although plays are poems and theatres are meeting houses, the seriousness of a theatre artist should never eliminate one's capacity to be absurd, mischievous, or wicked.

Maureen taught us to pivot between intense creative flows of highly caffeinated focus to boisterous, giddy, goofy guffaws.

I recall when Maureen taught the Emerson company of The Grapes of Wrath to sing a profane shanty of complaints during a particularly long tech hold. Imagine it: in a thrust theatre, an ensemble of college actors singing, in harmony, profanity after profanity in the round. It was sardonic, offensive, unprofessional, and oh-so delightful.

9. Fried Clams are Gross

A ninth lesson Maureen taught me is that I can’t stomach fried clams. She was excited to take me to one of her favorite bayside shacks to eat them. I turned green and, to this day, even the thought of them gives me the heebie-jeebies. Although I found the fried clams to be abhorrent, taking me, a mentee, to share a meaningful meal was an act of hospitality and vulnerability. With food, Maureen taught us to converse via communion.

10. We Carry Our Iterations in Interactions

A tenth lesson is that my parents and godparents loved Maureen Shea. She got dinner with them at the Malaysian restaurant one block over. Maureen described my family as “wonderfully eccentric and yet so normal,” and I agree with that description.

My dad, an introvert by disposition, flowered in Maureen’s presence. My godmothers, both queer elders, were enchanted by a unique camaraderie.

The lesson here is that we carry our iterations in all our interactions. The same thing that made me comfortable around Maureen is what made my family comfortable around her too.

A group of people sit at a table in a restaurant and lean in to smile for a group photo.

Maureen, far right, and Alex, far left, at dinner with his parents and godparents.

11. Plays Are Metaphors for Love; Life is the Real Thing

The eleventh lesson is about those aforementioned iterations, the incarnations of our ancestors alive in our gut.

During a tech rehearsal for a main stage show at the college, Maureen stood up, left the room, and turned a play over to me, her assistant, so she could be with her dying mother. In choosing between being with her play and being with her mother in their final hours, Maureen made the right choice.

Counterintuitively, when she left, she pulled us closer.

“You will always be next to me as you were during one of the most profound times in my life,” she wrote to me years later, reflecting on the episode.

By leaving the room, Maureen did the right thing. Plays are poems, she taught. “Listen to plays like you listen to people you love,” she said.

Yet, life is the essential, necessary, and permanent poetry.

Plays are metaphors for love; life is the real thing. Don’t confuse the two.

12. Reject Gentrification and Avoid Pretension

Twelfth lesson: Remington’s, an old blue-collar-Boston meat-and-potatoes dive bar where a new, sleek Emerson dining hall sits was a memorable place to conduct independent studies in the afternoon. Who can forget sipping a Guinness, smelling the stale wooden furniture, discussing Shakespeare, realizing a mouse was climbing over your foot, and then slipping out in the light of day?

For us, coffee was the fuel of the theatremaker; alcohol was the oil. Whether one drinks or not, by meeting at such a place as Remington’s, Maureen actively rejected metastasizing gentrification of Boston by grounding my learning in a distinctly unpretentious environment. Taverns are also meeting houses. They’re also theatre classrooms.

13. Direct Like a Bowler

The thirteenth lesson is a regret: I wish I had gone bowling with Maureen.

I don’t even know if she liked bowling, but I’d like to envision Maureen as a proficient candlepin bowler, Massachusetts icon that she was.

In addition to being a potter, Maureen—when directing—was a bowler.

In the rehearsal hall, she would charge the play as a bowling ball charges pins. When all of the pins crashed, the sound was glorious, and it was a small miracle in its way.

When a gutter ball was thrown, it met the gutter with the same sheer force as it would the pins. Then, a roar, a laugh, a snap, a stomp—unhideable failure! And then, to the next roll, a new frame, a new game.

Three people sit at desks and converse happily.

Dale White, production manager for Performing Arts; Wendy Kesselman, playwright; Maureen Shea, associate professor, in 1991. Photo from Emerson College Archives and Collections.

14. Theatre is a Language and a Visual Art

Fourteenth, taking Mirta Tocci’s interdisciplinary Ways of Seeing class and Maureen’s Languages of the Stage in my first year at Emerson was an indelible one-two inducement into the alchemy of creative logic. The combination of the two classes was significant, albeit non-deliberate (my schedule worked out that way, it just so happens).

In Ways of Seeing, Mirta, Maureen’s longtime partner, taught us to consider visual meaning. In Languages of the Stage, Maureen taught us the poetic dialectics of genre.

Languages of the stage was Maureen’s version of planets of the plays (an often-referenced concept popularized by the dramaturg Elinor Fuchs). While the “planets” framework places plays in intergalactic cerebral concepts, “languages” puts plays in the active oral tradition of theatre. Seeing plays as “languages” rather than “planets” grounds our work here among humanity through the songs of speech, the cadences of innate expression.

As artists and academics, Mirta and Maureen operated with a subversive, subterranean, La MaMa logic. This pedagogical combination is worth formalization as a first step for theatre students. In my first year of theatre school Maureen and Mirta, a power couple of epic proportions, woke up an artist in me.

15. On Life, Love, Grief, and Plays

Fifteenth and finally, a wonderful lesson: revel in the life of the theatremaker; be grateful for the lives of the stage, and hold to the urgent wisdom of the plays.

After college, Maureen and I corresponded about many plays. In recent years, we often returned to Thorton Wilder’s mystical Our Town.

“The play encompasses all that is joyful and painful in life,” Maureen wrote, “as if our contribution to the universe, as human beings, is emotion and anxiety, feelings both joyful and painful, feelings that go with both community and isolation, life and death,” Maureen wrote that to me on 11 March 2020—right before the pandemic shutdowns.

Maureen went on: “What is that beautiful line from that gorgeous poem by Wendell Berry, ‘The Peace of Wild Things?’’

“I come into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

Maureen continued, “Our Town, for me, captures that difference between humans and wild things—not that ‘peace,’ but rather the fact that we live each day with that forethought of grief—or as Emily [from Our Town] maintains—we should live so, so that we can truly live.”

We should live so, so that we can truly LIVE.

For Maureen, the words “live” and “love” were identical twins, if not interchangeable ones.

This is the MoShea (as some called her) manifesto: When we dignify stories on stage, we express our love for life, in stubborn defiance of grief. Maureen mastered that and dedicated her life to teach it to us all.

Thank you for that last lesson, Maureen.

That last note.

That last direction.

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