Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gifts Are For Giving

I learned a lesson tonight. It's a lesson I expect to need to learn again (why are there so many like that?!) and one that I would like to share with you.

I had the privilege of seeing a production of The Tempest tonight at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach. What a thrill. It was one of those transcendent experiences when all elements of a production work together to create a world which is delightfully theatrical and intensely true. Every aspect of the spectacle - set, lighting, costumes, and sound - intensified the impact and increased the story's power.

The performances were the sort that made you sure Shakespeare spoke as we do, as the language was so articulate and accessible. But it was not merely the actors' facility with text that made the portrayals memorable, it was their humanity. Prospero's love for his daughter was so clear, Miranda's innocence so complete, Ferdinand's loss so real. And rather than the usual beastly monster, this Caliban was a near-man whose coarse ways made him pitiable rather than frightening, even as he plots his master's death. In an additional stroke of genius, Trinculo and Stephano were women (Trincula and Stephana) which added wonderfully bawdy nuances to Caliban's shoe licking.

The production was accompanied by a string trio (two violins and a bass) that underscored some scenes and guided the sung passages in which Ariel's remarkable voice anchors divine harmonies filled with a pathos all their own. And the spirits Ariel summons are a triad of bare-chested male dancers whose leaps and bends transform their bodies into all manner of enchanted set element.

The wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda was a fittingly other-worldly party, resplendent with lanterns, sparklers, shimmering costumes, dancing, songs, and laughter in a scene so completely celebratory that I didn't want it to end. Never before have I cried in the theatre simply because something was so creative and beautiful. But I did tonight. And it wasn't the only time. Prospero's forgiveness of all who had wronged him was so immense that it enveloped me in a sense of priestly absolution. When Ariel leaves her master for the freedom she has fought so hard to achieve her goodbye is deliciously bittersweet.

So where does the lesson come in, you ask?

This production of The Tempest was directed by Meg Roe. A familiar name to Vancouver theatregoers, Meg is an accomplished actress and sound designer (with partner Alessandro Juliani who gets solo credit for composition on this production). Although her name is well-known, The Tempest is her directing debut.

That's right. This production, which won its way onto my top ten of all time when none of the many shows I saw in London did, was the vision of a first-time director. That's incredible.

The problem is, I have a degree in directing and I've been doing it for a long time but I don't know that I could create a work this accomplished. So for part of the performance I was torn between admiration and dejection - "wow this is really good/wow that's really depressing" -something like that. But by the end of the show (or the end of my drive home when scenes from the play were still bringing tears to my eyes) I knew the real value of what I had learned.

Sometimes I have the idea that there's only so much talent/creativity/success to go around so if someone else gets some, there's less left for me. But when a truly gifted artist creates a work for others to share, we get the present. My life was enriched by the production I saw tonight and as a result, my work will be enriched. When we approach theatre with an open, supportive spirit it does not diminish our own abilities - it actually has the potential to increase them. In the end, it isn't about my petty jealousies or insecurites; it's about the art. And when the work is this good, the art wins.

In Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art she talks a lot about the artist being a servant. In one section, she uses an analogy drawn by Jean Rhys where art is a lake and artists are all the rivers and streams and tributaries of various sizes and significance that feed the lake. She quotes Rhys who says: "I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

Later in the book, L'Engle offers more wisdom on the subject. (See what I mean about needing to learn the lesson over again? I've owned that book for years.)

The artist seeks that truth which offers freedom and then tries to share this offering. I am made more free by my participation in the work of other artists, especially the giants. And it is the other artists who teach the rest of us, offering their vision of truth. And if this vision is true, how can it conflict with the truth which Christ told us to know?

Make art, seek truth, share what you find. Feed the lake.

[Additional credits for the production of The Tempest ought to be included in this post. Here they are: Allan Morgan as Prospero, Jennifer Lines as Ariel, Julie McIsaac as Miranda, Darren Dolynski as Ferdinand, Bob Frazer as Caliban, Colleen Wheeler as Stephana, Naomi Wright as Trincula. Set design by Pam Johnson, lighting design by John Webber and costume design by Christine Reimer.) The other performances were all very fine as well.

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