Where are you? Where is your place?
Our Neolithic ancestors and their development of civilization as we know it have given us many gifts. Among other things, they have given us the notion of having a place. Moving from a hunting/gathering way of doing things to planting on this soil – here – helps tie us to a place. And, in English at least, we understand this on many levels when we talk about our 'roots' and 'putting down our roots.' The agricultural metaphor ties us to a place.
At the moment I understand roots too well. I have been fighting a losing battle with a particularly virulent batch of poison ivy in my backyard. The root systems of this terrible and disgusting weed are amazing to behold. And difficult to kill – so sturdy and intertwined are the roots with the soil.
Generally we think of having a place as a comfort. Our place can often serve as a retreat from the "outside world." Our place can help us understand where we stand relative to others – for example, our place with family, friends or tribe can be more important than any place outside that circle.
And yet we live in a world today in which displacement seems to be gaining ground. Every day we see and hear of more people displaced from their homes and their places due to war. Or as I write this, we remember the thousands displaced by natural disaster – Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, the tsunami, and a series of recent earthquakes from Pakistan to Mexico. Beyond the wandering souls left homeless by war and disaster, thousands more have been forcibly shaken to the Realm of the Dead.
To a person left homeless by an explosion, where is she? Where is her place?
And now we're led to understand that a group of young Britons plotted to destroy themselves and others in a complex plot on transatlantic flights. Somehow these young men felt displaced from the culture in which they lived – and from their own lives and possible futures.
Recently, I felt very clearly where my place was. My place was at the back of the line of several hundred folks who lined up to have a chance to get a ticket to see Meryl Streep as Mother Courage. My wife and I packed up the car long before sunrise and drove into the heart of the metropolis to see one of our great actors play one of the great roles in a great play about war. I knew where my place was – the back of the line.
As we sat and talked, the world passed by. Runners raced, trotted, or wheezed past our little spot. They had places where they started and ended. They knew their place too.
The theatre world is a world of marvels. Theatre creates a world that is, at once, both highly controlled and highly free. The world of the play is circumscribed by the words of the playwright, the physical boundaries of the space, and the human limitations of the performers. But that world is also as free as the imaginations of all who work on the project and as free as the unknown future that lies ahead of us all.
Some theatre folk like to stress the need for theatre to unsettle audiences. Audiences need to be shaken up. They need, according to these theatre folk, to be displaced from their hide-bound ideas and false assumptions and comfortable hypocrisies. And I can't say that I disagree with that point of view.
The theatre should never lose sight of the importance and necessity of being beautiful. With a reminder that that which is terrible may also possess beauty. And when we displace an audience from their world of false comforts, we help them find a new place in the realm of that which is truly human – a realm in which every human soul has a place.
Regardless of the work we do or the projects we do – from doing the latest hot play to the dinner theatre to the classic tragedy to the simplest musical – the theatre must be where we can learn a little how to be truly human.
That's the place I want to be.