Sunday, February 20, 2011

Backstage Sabbaths

“This is your church,” the director said, gesturing to the stage. I was working as a stage manager at the now-defunct Bar Harbor Theater in Maine. We were on break, and the subject of religion had come up. My friend and coworker had asked whether I attended church, and I had said no. “This is your church,” was his response. That was the first of many times I’d think of theater, and of storytelling, in those terms.

Story provides ritual. I would liken reading before bed to an evening prayer. I would liken getting dressed up for the theater, taking your seat, and watching a play unfold to going to church. There are many rituals involved with preparing for a show: mopping the stage, donning costumes, the countdown from half an hour before curtain, and so on.

Story provides insight. I have always been as likely to learn ethical and social lessons from fictional texts as from philosophical and psychological ones. Early on, from the picture book Be Nice to Spiders, I developed a nascent sense of ecological awareness. From the film International Velvet, I learned that adults often get angry when they get scared. From Man of la Mancha, I learned that I prefer wholehearted attempt to halfhearted accomplishment.

Story provides awe. I confess I feel more awe at the sight of a blank stage than in the presence of an alter. I’ve felt more moments of transcendence backstage, as an audience member, and between the pages of books than at religious services. I adore the quiet that descends as the lights dim before a play: In that momentary hush exists the potential for miracles: We might find actors transformed into kings. We might witness battles long past. We might see, in these characters, the small moments of courage that we fail to recognize in our friends and family.

If witnessing and telling stories are my spiritual duties, than one might inquire about the creed of storytelling. In the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands, a student says to Lewis that “we read to know we’re not alone.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Waiting For Godot depict very different worlds. The former might communicate the feeling of being caught up in apparent chaos while the latter centers on an interminable wait. But to anyone who has experienced those states, both of these plays let us know that others have felt the same. That assurance, that we are not alone, is something I have always understood to be a major appeal of religion. It is, perhaps, the primary purpose of storytelling.

Ultimately, though, storytelling is not a religion but a practice. A story may draw on any religion or mythology, and all religions that I know of draw on stories. No matter how our belief systems evolve, I suspect that storytelling will always exist - vital, if sometimes under recognized - alongside such practices as meditation, charity, and prayer.

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