All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. — William Shakespeare
We stand in line, pay a pretty penny, and cram into sweltering rooms. We sit on uncomfortable chairs or stand for hours — all for that moment, that moment of transcendence when the performer on stage digs deep and rips away the dull faÃ§ade that hides from us the explosive vitality of our own lives. The veil falls away and for an instant we see into the heart of the mystery. Then we file out into the night, drive home, and drift off to sleep still humming the chorus, feeling the beat of our hearts, drifting through the shimmers of insight and elation that broke through our indifference like shafts of light through a forest canopy. We love show business, even with all its absurdity, arrogance, bombast, and schmaltz. There’s something about it. Musicians, actors, directors, designers, producers, engineers, when they’re good, are as good as gods who create a world, draw you in, and set the crown upon your head. In the best art, we are all king or queen for a day, flush with power, ripe with wisdom, overflowing with love. We get it. The world, with all its possibilities, is ours. Sometimes it even happens in front of the TV. I was five years old in February, 1964 when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was dumbfounded. How could four lads with guitars and drums drive hordes of strangers into ecstasy? What strange magic was this?
Is there a connection, a relation, between stagecraft and so-called ordinary life? Is there something about the artistry of performance that holds a mirror up to the various roles we play in our own lives?
As I grew up I began to notice a discrepancy. I noticed it first in others. Then I discovered it in myself. We are one person in private, and another in public. In the solitude of our inner lives we roam freely down the canyons of consciousness following thought-streams wherever they lead. We stare into space because that’s where we’re going, and it’s smart to keep your eyes on the road. But when other people are around you have to pay attention. They might say something. They might shift in their seat in some meaningful way. Was that a sigh or was that a sigh? There are a hundred non-verbal cues to process, not to mention the vagaries of vibe. It’s exhausting. Maybe that’s just my introversion talking. But to some extent, this is true for all of us, introvert and extrovert alike. When we’re together there’s a certain amount of play acting involved. No longer autonomous, you consciously and unconsciously mirror the speech and behavior of others. The monologue’s over. It’s time for dialogue.
I don’t mean to say that we’re all a bunch of phonies. This observation isn’t born in despair. Good things arise in relationships. We absolutely need it. It’s just that initially anyway, dialogue calls for a little mimicry and play acting.
We play many roles in our lives — the good son, the loving daughter, the ardent bride, the faithful husband, the nurturing mother, the stalwart father, the trusted colleague, the insightful mentor, and the loyal friend. When we get it right, we lose ourselves in those roles and use them as opportunities to be of service to the good, for it is through the aggregate actions of our individual lives that the collective good is realized. The danger, of course, is identifying too completely with any of those masks and dehumanizing ourselves by become merely actors, cogs in a machine devoid of sensitivity, empathy, and compassion. The goal of the hero in any hero’s tale is to sacrifice comfort in service of others and thereby fully realize their previously submerged authentic selves. It’s ironic. We become who we really are by playing a part, for it is only in the field of action that our inauthenticity is burned away. And it is through our selfless service that the world is healed.
That is why we are drawn so powerfully toward art, especially the art of performance. As we live vicariously through the character, the song, or the agonizing dilemma, we feel the truth of the depiction in the depths of our own soul. If our imagination is keen enough, and if we surrender our disbelief and fall under the spell, it is as if we live through the events on the stage ourselves — so clear is the mirror great art holds up to our own lives. Great performance gives us to ourselves in a way we are incapable of achieving in solitude. It happens in the space between the performer and the audience. We’re just built that way.
I played a solo show at Java Joe’s in San Diego a few weeks ago. It was a hot Saturday night and the room was full. After Chad Taggart played a wonderful opening set, I buttoned up my vest, put on my guitar, and stepped up to the mike.
It is an exhilarating feeling, looking out at an audience, that pregnant pause, the silence before the first downbeat, the void and formlessness before the creation, that moment when anything’s possible, the love and trust inherent in the deal you’ve made with the audience — you take time out of your busy lives, buy a ticket with your hard-earned money, bring all of your aliveness and passion and trouble into the room and take a seat, and I’ll stand and face you alone, and with my hands draw music from this guitar and with my voice sing stories and poems that hold a mirror up to your sorrow, your joy, your defeat, and your triumph. We will trust the power of music and song to reach deep into us and heal wounds we didn’t even know we had. And on a lucky night, when all the pieces come together, we experience something together that’s bigger than any one of us. A communion, a gathering of animals around a watering hole, a tribal band around an ancient fire beneath a field of stars we haven’t even named yet.
In that moment I was the troubadour, the bard, the oracle, the jester, the priest, and the fool. I played the bread and sang the wine of the Eucharist. I opened myself up for scrutiny. By the shear boldness of performance we are all emboldened. We watch performers very closely because we want to know, if we open ourselves up to scrutiny, if we come out of hiding, if we let the world see the truth about who and what we are, will they see us, will they know us, will they love us? This longing to be known in our authenticity drives so much of the relationship between performers and audiences. That’s why we leave shows, the good ones, feeling more alive, more courageous, and more willing to revel in our humanity. We forgive ourselves our transgressions and limitations, we love our broken places, and we know in our bones that we walk through a world full of good but wounded people just like us, and that we are safe among them, and as we learn to love them we learn to love ourselves.
I’m packing up for another show. My guitar is safely stowed; my gig bag is full of gear. Got the venue address in my phone and a Google map queued up. Soon I’ll set up my stuff in a room I’ve never been to before and step up to the microphone. I’ll look out at the audience, a room full of strangers, and I’ll see in their faces my own face, my own questions, my own joys and sorrows. They will embolden me. And I’ll step up to the mike and I will say, “Welcome to the show.”
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College. Everything you need to know is at www.peterbolland.com