life lessons theater theater and life theatre

What does theater teach about life?

Someone just asked me this question and I answered in a message because it was too long to post on a wall. This is my VERY short answer to the question but I wanted to put this up here.

That is a great question, what does theater teach about life? There is a lot depending on how involved or deep you got. I think for simplicity sake I’ll tackle the concepts of teamwork, themes, and emotions.

One basic element in stage productions is teamwork, how to make a team come together for a common goal. The crew, actors and tech people are all on sub sets of the same team and while they perform different functions they make the whole production run. Also, there is a valuable lesson to be learned about I verses we. If one actor or director is on an ego trip and makes everyone else look bad then the production tanks. The more support the group gives each other the better the overall production goes.

Then there is the content of the shows. Some shows are creative for the sake of showcasing talent and some simply have a point to make. I just did a show this fall where the lessons of the characters were “face your fears” and “know your limits.” The famous play No Exit by Sarte teaches that one must not look to others for approval but rather one’s self. I saw a great show in Chicago called My Dinner with Amy that tackled the theist verses atheist debate and how one should actually come closer to the center. Many shows have a point to make and the authors thread that message into a (hopefully) entertaining story in such a way that it is meaningful. Even if you disagree with the point of the show it challenges one to look at the author’s viewpoint and compare it with their own.

Another side of theater teaches one about emotions. My most challenging role was this fall which required me to almost cry on stage for every performance. I’m not usually that emotional of a person but it taught me to get in touch with a more emotional side of myself to be able to deliver a performance. I’ve also had to play characters that acted far differently than I do in real life. Two years ago I had to play an unfaithful, ungrateful tennis player and chase two different girls. Not in my real life character but it taught me about other paths people take. By playing those things on stage it made me look at a differing set of ethics and morals.

To me, theater is looking at humanity. The characters, themes and talent all showcase something that people have experienced in life or would like to see happen. I think one can reflect on their own life when they see something portrayed on stage. Of course this can go as shallow or deep as you want but having been involved in theater (as an actor, stage manager and production crew) for a decade and a half I have to admit that it’s changed me for the better. Many life lessons to be learned if you are willing to look.

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Lessons from Spring Break in California

Below is a piece that I’ve had written for a while but figured I’d share it on here. The events took place during Spring Break 2001 and beyond. It is in some ways sad that I learned this lesson long ago and had to re-learn it 8 years later. Oh well, I guess if you don’t learn your lesson the first time you’ll have to learn it again. The story is a bit long but covers some of the transition I made in my early 20’s. Enjoy

A local actor turns a scientist the other way

In the spring of 2001 I took a trip with my friend Brian to visit San Diego. I had always wanted to go to California, it seemed so different from the Midwest lifestyle that I was accustomed to and it by reputation was far different from the New York culture I had visited six years prior. At any rate it was spring break that semester (my junior year in college) and I was going somewhere warm and not snowy.

We flew into Los Angeles, spent the day there and then drove down to San Diego. I admit L.A. was exciting. We went to Universal Studios first, this was something interesting to do and since we were there we might as well have done at least one thing touristy. It was neat because there was nothing like it that I was used to (at least in the Milwaukee Area). Multiplayer Nascar games and Hollywood artifacts provided some amusement for a few hours.

After that we drove through Chinatown on our way to Venice Beach. Again as some guy from the Midwest I had no idea what to expect. The legends just spoke of bad caricatures of Arnold Schwartzenegger and Budweiser commercials. But when we got down there it was actually musicians, actors, athletes and execs just doing their thing. I really got into the diversity. I enjoyed watching musicians and mimes do their thing (not that I’m a huge fan of mimes but I find it fascinating to watch people do what they do). I also noticed that there was a pretty diverse crowd on the beach. But more than anything because of this mixture it appeared that people were just being themselves.

After the Venice Beach excursion we ventured out on our 2 hour drive to San Diego. Now I’m a huge fan of this city simply for the fact that it’s usually sunny and 74 degrees. This is perfect for my exercise routines. I was able to jog to the San Diego Zoo from where Brian’s brother was staying. A nice 12 minute run (up hill mind you) was just enough to wake me up and get me ready for a few hours at the zoo. I highly recommend going to this zoo at some point. It’s large enough so that you’ll have plenty to do for the day but contained enough so that you won’t have to spend 3 days just to see what you want to. This is truly a world class zoo and very respectable by all means.

But by day three my friend Brian and I needed something low key to do. We decided to go to the pier, visit the beach and have a few drinks in the early afternoon. So at about one in the afternoon we stopped at a bar with a nice open front and had a few drinks (to put it lightly). Shortly after round one, a few gentlemen in their late 30’s to early 40’s stopped in and sat near us. They seemed to have a good demeanor and know several people in the place. Since we were unfamiliar they started some conversation.

Two of the guys had been pilots in the Air Force and had easily had common ground with Brian. He at the time was a flight instructor, hoping to be an airline pilot. I on the other hand was a Chemistry major with some acting experience which gave me some common ground to talk to the third guy, TJ.
TJ was a very easy person to talk to. Outgoing but not boisterous, he had lots of stories to tell and experiences to relate to. It turns out he was a local actor, also very active in his church. He told me he would do local theatre, commercials and events for his church. I was able to share with him my high school and college experiences in acting.
By round 4 (I think that’s what we were on) TJ asked me why I wanted to do what I did. I replied that I just wanted something I could get a job in and pay the bills with. In Chemistry I could get a job in the industry and be stable. But I also shared that I was not passionate about what I did and that I wished to continue doing theatre as a hobby. Sensing that I was actually at a crossroads he shared something very profound. He said this and I’ll never forget:

“You need to find what you are passionate about. I am very happy in life. I’m able to act, pay my bills and work with my church. I have what I need and I’m happy. You need to find what you’re passionate about because you will do it well. And people will pay you for it.”

Here was a guy that not only found what made him happy but found a way to incorporate it into his life. On top of all of that, he was able to make this a reality for himself, recognize that and enjoy it! I think It’s hard enough to find what you’re passionate about but to bring this idea into life is truly remarkable. I bought round 5 (or whatever we were on).

Seven months later I was in my senior year in college. I had a tough semester with Quantum Mechanics, Calculus, New Testament Studies and a Theatre Appreciation class. While this sounds balanced it was quite demanding. Quantum Mechanics was a 40 hour a week dedication and Theatre appreciation believe it or not demanded at least 30 hours a week (theatre needs to be seen, experienced and discussed and all that takes time). New Testament studies required significant attention as it was a very analytical process which also took time to research, analyze and debate. By this time I was already a double major in Chemistry and Religious Studies. My plan was still to work in the Chemistry industry and possibly go to grad school for religious studies and be an instructor at the college level.

By November of that semester I had hit a wall. I truly loved the scholarly aspect of religious studies and the theatre course had renewed my interest in the arts. But I realized I couldn’t do all of it anymore. The hard part for me is that I wasn’t doing well in my Chemistry classes and I couldn’t figure out why. A couple years earlier I had been a star student under another professor, taking on an independent study and tutoring for him and now I could barely stay afloat. What happened??

Like most of my dilemmas the answer was quite simple but I was unwilling to look at it (or admit it). I felt like I needed a time out in my life so I made a decision to take 2 days off classes and work. I spent time with myself just pondering my situation. What should I do? Should I drop some of the religion and theatre to focus on my career? Or should I drop Chemistry and focus on religious studies to be able to do well in that area? I had to seriously consider the consequences of this choice. It would be life altering. I did know that whatever I chose I’d be 2 days behind in my work so I’d better be able to make it up. It wasn’t until I took a more relaxed approach to my situation that I realized the answer had to be much simpler than I thought. In fact it was.

The thing I hadn’t done was admitted to myself that I hated what I did. I couldn’t stand waking up and going to lab. I despised having to write in a style that wasn’t the way I communicated. I was having trouble adapting to the style that I needed to in order to be successful in that world. I was so afraid of failure that I closed myself off to my true motivation for doing what I do. To be honest when I explored myself I couldn’t even figure out why I did Chemistry anymore. The only thing I came up with was that it appeared to be safe and practical as a career, but sometimes the safe way isn’t the best.

So the following day I had to go to my advisor’s office and tell him I was dropping the Chemistry major. Now this must have been a strange thing to hear from a college senior with a semester and a few weeks to go in their career that they’re going to switch gears and go from a Bachelor of Science to a Bachelor of Arts. After ten minutes of debating with me to keep the major I had said something that seemed to end the conversation. I flat out told him that I don’t have any passion for what I do in his department, but rather my passion lies in another field. I could see it in his eyes that he understood, that there was no way to convince me to stay. I got my papers signed, switched my major and I haven’t been in a lab since.

I had no idea that Rum and Cokes from a random bar in San Diego would lead me to a guy that would influence the direction I’d take my life in. For that I will be grateful to TJ, I hope he was able to affect many other people as he did me. Even more, I hope people were willing to listen to this random actor because he’s got an interesting perspective on life. I’ve had better success in my life ever since.