Theater: How and Why

by Peter Sellars

Theater is a way to try and enter someone else’s life, and a way to let someone else into your life. Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, in someone else’s mind, in someone else’s heart, in someone else’s neighborhood, or in someone else’s jail cell? Can you imagine what someone else is experiencing? Can you imagine how that experience would shape that person’s choices, actions, attitudes, public behavior, and secret feelings and hope? How many ways are you like this person? Of course you are different. But how many ways is this person like you? The longer and the deeper you look, the things you share totally outweigh the differences. Maybe all that separates you is a cement wall and the fact that, for today, you are allowed to keep the shoelaces in your shoes.

The power of theater is that it gives us a chance to create the conditions in which we can really begin to try to see each other, hear each other, and find what makes us equal when the world around us makes us so unequal. It is a chance to realize how fluid your own identity is, and to recognize that neither you nor anyone else needs to be trapped in a single identity, a single situation, or a single scenario – because all of us are way more interesting, complicated, and hopeful than appears on the surface. And the same way you don’t want someone else to judge you without understanding what you’re going through, theater creates a space where you don’t have to judge other people from the outside. Or judge them at all. Instead you can try to understand them.

So when you’re acting, you have to learn someone else’s words. As you do that, you might start to notice your own thoughts, feelings, and prejudices about other people. Suddenly, you have to think about and feel what they are saying, and notice things about them that you didn’t notice before. Which will lead you to think about and feel what they are not saying. Everyone says certain things that we want other people to think or feel or notice about us. But other things, that we don’t want people to notice or that we are uncomfortable with, or that we have mixed feelings about, don’t get said. So start to observe and understand how the person you are playing moves. What is their music? What are their rhythms? How do they live in their body?

And how do they live in their mind, in their imagination? When you are 16 years old and locked in a steel and cement cell 23 hours a day, you are going to need your imagination. Every person is way more than what they look like from the outside; where they grew up, where they went to school, their test scores, what kind of job they have, or how many times they’ve been arrested. In theater, you try to discover what’s inside a person that we have not seen yet. All human beings are changing every day. We have good days and bad days, and violent days and calm days, and we make mistakes and we get some things right. But that is always in play, moment to moment in every human life. There are no “good people” or “bad people” – there are just people with good and bad moments, qualities, habits, and tendencies, and the tension between all those things that plays out differently on different days, in different situations. Theater is about recognizing the minute-to-minute dynamic inside the tension of every human life. Everything is in play – like in sports. Every element that comes together to create “team you” wins some games and loses others.

But your life is not the scoreboard or the stats. You can be courageous and brilliant and lose the game, or win the game without playing well, or fairly. Life is about everything that doesn’t appear on the scoreboard. The story behind the story. Not what the world thinks is going on, but what is really going on. Most theater is focused on crisis. Not because crisis is depressing, paralyzing, freaks you out, or is fun. Crisis is the moment where change enters our lives. The old thing doesn’t work anymore. We need a new idea, a new approach. We have to imagine something better and then become that.

For example, some laws are unjust and they need to be changed. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. And we all know plenty of things that are illegal but prosecuted differently in different neighborhoods. And surrounded by a lot of hypocrisy. So theater lets us create a space where we can enact both the legal and the illegal and, without risking anybody’s life, try and find where justice really lives.

Some people have already made large mistakes. And you may be next. It’s human. But mistakes are not just something to ruin lives. Mistakes are also one of the only ways that human beings learn something deeply. And the only way you can learn from a mistake is to revisit it, go back into the situation, look at everything again, and give yourself the chance to make some other choices and feel what that feels like. Theater is the second, third, and 150th chance for all humans. It lets us go back and do something all over again, like a rehearsal for life, and discover that we can create a different future with some new possibilities. There is no discovery without total commitment and risk. Really great theater takes you into the danger zone and needs courage and insight and skill and brilliance and humor and honesty. There is no place to hide. And there is nothing to wait for. The time is now.

Human beings are living contradictions. We are “of two minds” about most things, and our hearts are hurting so often in the crossfire. Each person is an infinite self living inside a limited body. Theater is about learning to live inside human contradictions. To take a simple example from acting – if you’re playing a loud person at a party, the truth is probably that that person is very shy. Something is true if, and only if, its opposite is also true! You are usually telling yourself one side of your own story. But there are other sides. Learning to tell those other sides of the story is theater.

The only thing you need to make theater is human beings. Everything else you can imagine. The more you imagine everything, the more amazing theater becomes. The best theater is super specific, and very, very accurate about someone’s feelings and situation. Keenly observed, through a microscope or a telescope, recognizing layer after layer of all the elements that are in play in a human life, in a family, and in a world. Which is why we call it “a play.” And so, right next to all that accuracy and insight, theater adds freedom. Now imagine every other possibility, for yourself, and for everyone else.  

And then step into the rest of your real life. And really act. And in real life, acting means action. Take action. Make change. Brilliantly. Because now you understand the situation from the inside, you know the forces at work, and you are equipped to enter the high level, high stakes sport of moving the ball down the field. That ball is the world.