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Is Theatre Helpful? (or some things I learned from rehearsing The Oldest Boy)

Three actors on stage
(L to R) James Saito, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jon Norman Schneider in a scene from Lincoln Center Theater’s production of The Oldest Boy. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

When writing my play The Oldest Boy, which involves an American child recognized as a Tibetan tulku, I often called people in the Tibetan community for help and insight. I’ll never forget when I first wrote to an eminent Tibetan scholar, asking to have a conversation about reincarnation, and he wrote back immediately, “I am happy to talk with you, as your play might benefit other sentient beings.”

I thought: oh my goodness. He is assuming that art is helpful.

Again and again, when I looked to the Tibetan community for advice or help, they gave it without question, with the confident assumption that art might be helpful. In helping me put a play on, they felt confident that they might be helping others.

‘Your play might benefit other sentient beings’—is not a deeply held conviction in the West. Or it might be a deeply held unconscious belief, but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. ‘Ah! You’re an artist! Well then you must be helping other sentient beings!’

Two actors and a puppet on stage
Ernest Abuba and Celia Keenan-Bolger in a scene from Lincoln Center Theater’s production of The Oldest Boy. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This confidence in art’s helpful quality—“your play might benefit other sentient beings”—is not, I think, a deeply held conviction in the West. Or—to put it another way—it might be a deeply held unconscious belief held by many artists, but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. “Ah! You’re an artist! Well then you must be helping other sentient beings!” One does not hear that kind of reinforcement about one’s usefulness in general.

In our culture (which evolved from the Pilgrims), the utility of pursuits with moral uplift or application is made into the opposite of the solipsistic luxury of art. Art is often defined by both artists and non-artists alike by its very uselessness.

But artists know that art is not useless, else they would not make it. Nor would audiences engage with art if they truly thought it was useless.

What if we confidently assumed that what we were doing was useful, even helpful?

When we rehearsed The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center Theater, we had two Tibetan lamas visit our rehearsal room to answer our questions about reincarnation and Buddhism. They answered our questions, and they blessed the rehearsal room.

At one point, Lama Pema leaned forward, looked at us keenly, and said, “Art and religion aren’t very different.” Then he started laughing and said, “And someone’s got to do it!” And then he laughed some more. His laughter contained many convictions. That art and religion are difficult. And also essential to a culture that values consciousness and gentleness.

He said, “For Tibetans, our culture is our capital. We have an economy of culture.” He told us that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into exile after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the first thing he did was to set up a training program in Dharamsala, India, to preserve the ancient arts of Tibetan dance and music. The first thing he did was not to set up an army. He wanted to preserve his people; and in order to do so, he set out to preserve their culture.

Being exposed in a daily way to a culture that confidently assumes that art is valuable (and valuable precisely because it is helpful, and directed towards others) changed my outlook. I thought: art is already helpful. How can it be more helpful? How might this play give something back to the community that so generously gave of itself?

On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake shook Nepal. Many Tibetans who I know in New York could not reach their families in Nepal for days. Whole families were instantly extinguished. Others lived in tents for the foreseeable future. Countless temples and homes were destroyed.

I wanted to help in some small way. I spoke to James Yaegashi who acted in the Lincoln Center production of The Oldest Boy. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, James created an event called Shinsei to rally the international theatre community to offer help. I don’t use the term “international theatre community” lightly, though some might call it an oxymoron. I believe that there is, profoundly, an international theatre community—even though theatre is by its nature intensely local. When like-minded artists meet artists from disparate countries and cultures, they often feel a kinship that goes beyond nationality. Art has no flag, and art brooks no nation-states.

After talking to James about his experiences with Shinsei, I hatched a plan to do readings of The Oldest Boy in multiple cities in North America on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Nepal, April 25. The readings will serve as a fundraiser to help Tibetan refugees still affected by the earthquake. When I approached theatres about their willingness to help in this endeavor, I found that, just as the Tibetan community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help with the production of a play, so too the theatre community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help people on the other side of the globe. Theatres in Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Washington DC,  Toronto, Minneapolis, Providence, and Boston, quickly signed on. Theaters that have already participated in the benefit and produced full productions of the Oldest Boy include, Marin Theatre Company, Unicorn Theatre, San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis will be hosting a production this fall.

If plays are thought of gifts rather than as commodities, how do we give them away?

Performers on stage dancing
Celia Keenan-Bolger and the company in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of The Oldest Boy. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

And I thought: could it be that the desire of art to help does nothing to diminish its status as an art object, and instead allows it more reach? Could it be that our secular theatre, operating quietly and steadfastly in a capitalist culture, still keenly feels its ritual function as a catalyst in a massive gift culture? If plays are thought of gifts rather than as commodities, how do we give them away?

A challenge for playwrights: write your next play as a gift for someone you love. A challenge for audiences and critics: think of the play you are about to receive as a gift that was given to you in the hopes that you would like it. A challenge for producers: find a way not to charge admission for your next theatrical event. Instead, serve food for free. A challenge to dramaturgs: document radical acts of generosity in the theatre in the hopes of inspiring others. A challenge for actors, directors, and designers, who already give so much of themselves for free: how can we think of ourselves as more full, more fed, every time we give more of ourselves away?

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Her play The Oldest Boy, will be read in seven different cities at seven different theatres on April 25th to raise money for Tibet Fund. For more information on how to participate in the event, or to sponsor your own reading of the play, go to http://www.sarahruhlplaywright.com/Benefit.

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Wonderful piece. I've had experiences that convinced me that performing is the work the Deity has given me to do, and I always like to have support and confirmation of that.

Sarah, thanks for sharing such a thought-provoking and meditative piece on art and gift sharing. Many of these questions have crossed my mind lately as I've been researching various Hindu texts and came across a description of art as a heightened form of scholarship and philosophy. It then went on to say that brahmins practiced or experienced art on a regular basis as part of their service or contribution to the world. It's shifted - or perhaps enhanced - my perceptive on art-making and art-giving.

Here is another thought about helpfulness: Suppose you were able as an artist to feel something so thoroughly, so completely, that no one would ever have to feel it again. That is one of the intentions of the Buddhist practice of tonglen, or exchanging self for other.

Tonglen can be practiced in many ways, but as a personal practice you honor yourself by not evading but feeling and valuing your own specific, perhaps mundane and embarrassing, and perhaps seeming intolerable, suffering. It is not about fixation, so that you are lost in and looping the storyline, which serves the double function of both entrapping and distancing. It is about having the courage to feel what you feel because you know that your very human suffering is fundamental, universal, and shared—and always particular. And you ventilate it with your breath.

If you know suffering (or joy) in yourself, in its particularity, then you can know it in another—your heart is widened. Before that whatever you may feel about the trials of the world is general and abstract—and useless except for maybe a treatise or sermon on suffering that moves, as in activates, no one. And so the second step in this personal practice of tonglen is to widen your comprehension of suffering to include others you know who may be experiencing something similar. Imagine a friend who, like you, was used and betrayed as a child, or by a lover, or who is seeking vengeance, or is afraid; then imagine all of the people in the world right this instant who have been similarly betrayed. Take on their suffering in the particularity that you know it. Breath it in, yours, you take it, take it all. Breathe it out.

Isn’t that the truthfulness and integrity that we all aspire to in making art? Perhaps, Pema Chodron tells us, we can feel our suffering so fully that no one else will ever have to. That’s a vow of the bodhisattva for all sentient beings. Perhaps I can through the art I make take on my life and the life around me so fully, not for the sake of the details, yet in the full holiness of them, that there is some small shift in the suffering of the world. That is the root of my work.

It's wonderful to see your thoughts on ways that art can truly "give back" to a community. Often times, I see new theatre companies talk of changing the world, with no objective other than creating affecting art. I, too, am interested in finding ways to partner with thematically relevant causes and charities, to find a way to impact those who don't find themselves seated in a small theatre to witness such shows, but greatly need the benefits of such art in a tangible way.

Thank you for writing and sharing this. Unfortunately I missed the production of THE OLDEST BOY, but hope to at least catch the archive recording at Lincoln Center. There are many forms of theatre of course, and they can serve various purposes. I have thought for some time that the western mindset is unfortunately excessively conditioned to think in terms of entertainment, which provides a form of immediate gratification and titillation, but often does little in providing relevant insight and significance, let alone moral uplift or application. It seems to me that so much of the theatrical lens these days is focused on what is dysfunctional, and scavenging for 'dramatic effect' to elicit a visceral response that too often does little more than provide a brief palliative for a surface craving that masks a deeper longing. Entertainment is a band aid. Sometimes a very colorful one. And band aids have their use, specifically for superficial wounds. Art is nectar that seeps deep into the blood to affect our cells. And when you have the high form of theatrical art fused with the quality of ritual, then you have the potential for transformative service and value to other sentient beings. Hopefully audiences, theatres, actors, playwrights, dramaturgs, producers, will take up your suggested challenges.