Here at Dordt (and likely at every college, though I can’t definitively speak for other schools), every introduction begins with the same series of questions.
“Hello! What’s your name? Where are you from? What are you studying?
My answer looks something like this:
“Hi, I’m Annie. I’m from Colorado, and I’m here in Iowa studying theatre.”
Usually, after revealing my major, my new acquaintance’s face contorts into an expression of shock colored by a bit of disapproval. And then, he/she asks the inevitable follow-up question:
“Oh, theatre? Okay! Well, what sort of job are you hoping to get with that degree?”
Usually, the skepticism stops there. But once, while introducing myself to a middle-aged doctor, the follow-up question involved a joke:
"Oh, theatre? Hey, do you know how to get a theatre major off your front porch? Pay them for the pizza!"
I doubt this man realized how insensitive he seemed, but the way he turned my deep-seeded dreams into a punch line sure stung. At the time, I forced a laugh –- after all, I’m an actress, aren’t I? I seemed collected externally, but my internal thoughts were moving quickly towards the extreme end of the snarky spectrum. I had to bite my tongue to keep from harshly (and dramatically) defending my major.
Much of today’s society – especially in church culture - maintains skepticism surrounding theatrical arts. Sure, theatre is entertaining, but what value does it hold beyond that? It's just another form of recreation, right? Further, it's a form that often lends itself to the taboo and, in turn, the non-Christian. By this logic, perhaps theatre proves not only nonessential, but also non-beneficial to anyone, particularly individuals of faith.
I see the logic in this system of thought, and as a theatre major, this cultural predisposition forces me to wrestle with my career goals almost daily. Sometimes, I'm not sure whether I'm pursing something meaningful, whether any of us are pursuing anything meaningful, whether anything at all is meaningful.
However, in all my years of theatre and particularly in my three years here at Dordt, I've never doubted theatre's ability to stretch a participant's empathy, which is of infinite value for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Honestly, this semester has been rough for me. There have been many moments of joy, but most of my time has been riddled by sadness. In turn, I’ve required an extra measure of empathy and of grace this semester. And in the midst of my personal turbulence, the theatre department was what kept me going.
My fellow company members understand the truth-grace balance better than most. They understand how to know another’s struggles, how to be aware of them in normal conversation. But they also understand how to separate the struggle from the person, how to keep the underlying sadness from coloring all of their interactions with the struggling one. They understand when giggles are necessary, and they understand when it’s better to cry and to stay up all night trying to untangle whatever spurred the tears. These theatre friends knew I wasn't doing well, but they didn't treat me as if I were less because I was struggling. Instead, they empathized.
My theatre professors have also epitomized empathy to me this semester. They’ve given me extensions on projects when my life circumstances were too overwhelming. They’ve opened their offices and their arms. They've offered advice regarding both my creative capacities and my general life philosophies. They’ve given me words of affirmation, encouraging me both as a human being and as a creative. They even sent me encouraging text messages periodically, sometimes including pictures of cute puppies to spur a simple smile. They kept me going, and they’re still keeping me going.
Why have these theatre people been such perfect examples of Christ? Because they know how to empathize.
Why are they so skilled in empathy? Because they do theatre.
And though I still have lots of questions about the value of theatre and about how Christians should engage with the theatrical realm, the empathy these theatre folks have exhibited this semester is enough of an answer for today.
And as I continue to wrestle with these questions regarding meaning and purpose and art and faith, I know my empathetic theatre family will wrestle with me. These are big questions, too big for anyone to answer alone, which makes me even more grateful for my friends who continually grow in empathy alongside me.
- Annie (a proud theatre major)
All the below photos were taken last night at the DART awards, which is our annual theatre celebration. It’s similar to the Tony’s. Everyone dresses up (and the phrase “dress up” is open to interpretation), there are fancy desserts, there’s an entertainment portion, and a series of golden dart-shaped awards are presented. Some awards are serious honors (“Most Outstanding Newcomer,” “Most Outstanding Company Member,” the “Golden Wrench” for an outstanding member of the scenic crew, etc.), but most are silly. The biggest fluke during a show receives an award, as does the most ridiculous hairdo, as does the strangest thing said backstage during a performance. In turn, the DART Awards create a space for us to reminisce, to celebrate our mistakes as well as our successes. And as we celebrate together, we further develop our empathy. As always, it’s good stuff.