By Steve Kaliski, DCI Fellow
Theatre is a laboratory of risks, mistakes, and accidents.
Though this might sound like a strange way to describe an art form that, at least from the audience’s point of view, depends on meticulously repeating the exact same product night after night, risks, mistakes and accidents really point to what is indispensable about theatre in both civic and academic contexts.
Consider the hyper-competitive, high-achieving ethos of a place like Davidson College. Extremely smart people work very, very hard to be as utterly on point as often as possible. But how about this, students? Take a class in Cunningham, and you can let down your perfectionist guards! Here, we don’t want you to do it the right way, at least not for a while. We want you to mess up, to fail, to test all the wrong ways first. We want you to explore the edges of the cliffside, not stand stock still in the middle of a vast field, wrongfully assuming that you’re already about to fall.
That’s all pretty romantic. What does it actually mean? And how does it connect to deliberation?
I teach theatre at Davidson and am also an actor, director, playwright, and public speaking coach. All of these roles feature moments of crisis in which I have to make a choice about which of two lists to center: the list of things I can’t do, or the list of things I can do.
The list of things I can’t do is vast: I can’t say “like” or “um;” I can’t look awkward with my arms; I can’t say “I don’t know” (I’m an expert, after all); I can’t look like an idiot on stage; I can’t forget my lines; I can’t bore my audience.
But the list of things I can do is vaster: my voice is an instrument, and I can do anything with it (speed up, slow down, take pauses, chuckle, make funny noises, emphasize the delicious phrase that brings it all together); I can make my scene partner see how much I care (amazing how I’m not thinking about my hands anymore); I can speak with passion about a topic that has affected me personally; I can ask questions to which I truly don’t know the answers.
Much of performance training empowers the artist with a sense of what can be done. This is tremendously freeing, and it can lead to many happy, productive accidents. In a scene between a mother and daughter, the daughter might decide she wants to get her mother to listen to her. Her tactic is “to bounce off the walls.” The actor decides to literally try this, playing the whole scene as a sprint from one studio wall to another, with an emphatic bounce at each point of impact. She even says “boing” out loud.
Is this the right choice for the final performance? No. It’s ridiculous.
But in being willing to explore anything, perhaps the actor discovers that 10% of this is, believe it or not, useful. And that 10% makes it into opening night. The clumsy stuff unmasked the real stuff.
Reflecting on our early semester deliberations, I am struck by the fear and caution that stifles our discourse about major civic issues. “I don’t know a thing about healthcare policy, so I won’t say anything, or I’ll politely defer to the consensus.” This feels like a distinctly Davidsonian pressure to be right, to be a premature expert, to not say the wrong thing, although I suspect it affects others elsewhere as well. I hope as we all rehearse our deliberative encounters that we can learn from the theatre and be more open to risks, mistakes, and accidents. If we center the positive–what we can do, what we can ask–we might messily make our way toward some productive civic action.
P.S. The only times I’ve ever forgotten my lines were when I told myself I couldn’t forget my lines.