I love the theatre.
A couple of years ago my husband, Eric, and I went to Greece for Christmas and visited the theatre at Epidauros early one winter morning. There we were, alone, in that vast, open-air theatre where centuries ago thousands came to watch plays which affected them so deeply that they went home—soul-cleansed. We stood in the circular orchestra and looked up at the terraced rows upon rows of seats—fourteen thousand in all, the guidebook said.
Self-consciously at first, we took turns doing favorite monologues from Shakespeare while the other listened from various parts of the "house." Even a sigh could be heard by the other in the back row of this ancient, holy place. Feeling braver and braver, I finally gave full voice to Hermione's trial speech from The Winters Tale. Nothing can describe the mysterious impact of what was breathed back to me from the invisible audience. A force far bigger than the human level enveloped and suffused me. I felt held, supported and blessed. In the back row Eric sat and watched in silence while I wept in recognition of an old saying, "Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit," called or not called, the god is there.
In 1978 the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts produced the American premiere of Thornton Wilder's The Alcestiad, and I played Alcestis. A few weeks before rehearsals started, Eric and I had spent slow time on the island of Crete where similar "encounters" with the ineffable mystery of the theatre took place. Isabel Wilder, Thornton's sister, came to sit in on our rehearsals. We were all nervous, because we knew that Thornton had written the play for her, and saw her as the noble Alcestis, who offers to die in place of her husband, Admetus. As we played the scene where the dying Admetus gradually regains health and Alcestis begins to fade into death, we heard a gasp, looked out into the auditorium, and saw Isabel weeping. We all became silent and rested in the moment. Again that presence was there. It held all of us and the play became a living part of our lives.
It is this that binds me to theatre: the presence of truth and a holy magic. Deep wonder. It is what I want when I go to see a play, and with what I want to imbue any play I write. Sometimes it works. When I write for the theatre, I write from my 30-year experience as an actor. While rehearsing a role, deep in my actor's heart I pray that there be almost nothing my soul cannot do to bring out the experience that my character expresses. As an actor I have learned how to wait for the visitation that will transform me into what is needed. My plays try to relate to this psychic readiness of actors who know their capacities for transformation. I also try to write to the actors' willingness to venture into the unknown and learn how to live there. In this way the actor is the primary vehicle and revealer of what happens in the play. That is why my plays usually require very little in the way of stage sets or props.
My adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, requires two very able, adult actors who can transform themselves on the turn of a dime into different beings and characters. Children deserve the best kind of theatre we can give them—in the plays they see they must be enthralled by the magical transformation of the ordinary into the otherworldly without much more than the actor on stage. This kind of theatre that is also easily transported to different places with different spaces, is the height of my joy as a playwright.
Among my plays for adults, Transcendental Wild Oats brings Louisa May Alcott's family to life during the achingly hilarious six months they spend in their self-made utopia in Massachusetts in 1843. Here the actors also play multiple roles and provide through their performances the venues in which they find themselves on a bare stage. As in Greek theatre, the medieval theatre and the Shakespearean theatre, the neutral playing area is our home. Peter Brook says in his book, The Empty Space, that drama is created when one person walks across an empty space and another is watching her do that. This is by no means a "poor" theatre. It is infinitely rich in possibility because it has for its subject the vast potential of the human soul—all of us.
It is fifteen years ago. Eric and I are performing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for some eight hundred elementary school children in the Bronx. It is our third performance of the day. The children shout warnings and encouragement as the play gathers speed. We are sweating and grateful we are still young enough to sustain the tension. In the silence at the end of the performance we look up into the terraced rows of seats. Clear as a bell a child's voice cries out, "The next time you go to Narnia, my house is the white one on the corner with the blue door—come and get me!"
And so it should be for all growing beings.