Kinstler: The mirrors and hammers of theatre, and of life

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Columnist

You’ve just been cast in a play and you get your script. Great, but what should you do with it? An actor’s job is to portray a specific message given by directors, designers and, of course, the playwright. An actor then must discover how their character fits into that message; what is the reason the playwright included this person in their overall story? Every character, at least in a well-written play, has what’s called a super-objective—their ultimate, overarching goal. In every action and scene, the actor helps push their character closer to achieving their unique super-objective. Beyond this, every play has what’s called a seed. The seed is a single word around which every scene in the play will revolve, and is accomplished through the “unity of action.” It is the actor’s job to discover how their character arch ties into this unity of action so that every objective propels the play toward this seed. 

Now, we’ve established the initial steps of how an actor may work through their script. But what’s the point?

Performance art is much more than entertainment. Like any art form, theatrical performance is often a critique of some form of life. Every play acts either as a mirror, displaying what society really looks like, or as a hammer, smashing some prejudice, stereotype or other preconceived notion that society, as a collective, believes. 

For example, Lorainne Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” is a mirror. In her play, an African American family comes into a sum of money and attempts to buy a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. Initially, they are asked by a member of the housing board not to proceed with the sale for obviously racist reasons. Hansberry’s play is based on a true story; it recounts events in her own life when her family tried to move to a predominantly white neighborhood. Therefore, “A Raisin in the Sun” shows the truth. It is a reflection of a prejudged people, and how society treated them. 

Alternatively, take “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” by Alice Birch, a play with particular importance to our campus as it was recently performed by Case Western Reserve University’s Players Theatre Group. Whereas “A Raisin in the Sun” acts as a mirror, taking a more passive route at displaying injustice, “Revolt” is a hammer. It’s in-your-face, loud, colorful and explicit in its conviction. So unrelenting is the message that the audience cannot help but understand it. “Revolt” holds up a mirror, one which displays the reality for women in today’s patriarchal society, and then smashes it to pieces, telling its audience exactly what the problem is, and almost threatening them into action. While mirrors and hammers are two very different approaches, the end goal is the same: to evoke change.

Since the days of Thespis, actors have been the mouthpieces for change. Where studio art forms can show you a problem, theatre has the unique ability to connect with its viewers in real time. It has the ability to tell you exactly what is going on in the world and offer solutions to fix it. It is the most intimate of the art forms because you cannot just walk away. In a museum, patrons can choose which exhibits they look at, they can choose which hammers and mirrors are shown to them. In a theatre, you are told what to do and how to react. It creates a sense of vulnerability because you are watching the injustices and prejudices held by society being enacted on real people. A good actor does nothing more than show you daily life. Sure, those mundane activities may be hidden under period costumes from the 18th century, or choreographed dance numbers, but the audience is still viewing the same seed—the same message that the performance either smashes or reflects.

Theatre does offer us an escape from reality as a source of entertainment. However, it can also show us the problems of the world, both detached from our individual communities and going on within them. More than ever, theatre has the power to rally groups and jumpstart progression. Any good actor knows that if a play feels like it is dragging during rehearsals, the way to fix it is by going louder and faster. This same mantra can be applied to change. If your cause is not being recognized, if people are not paying attention, be louder, move faster, increase your reach. All the world’s a stage, and, therefore, progression relies on finding your audience. I’m not saying the answer is when in doubt find a playwright, but no one ever got a Netflix deal for coloring within the lines.