I must confess that I have a history with theatre that predisposes me to a significant bias. I was bullied pretty extensively throughout my school life, in cycles of relentless harassment alternating with miserable ostracisation. Getting involved in the school theatre was the one time of the year that put a stop to all that. For a few months I was part of a team, spending hours in rehearsals, all working towards a common goal. I was also therefore, temporarily out of bounds for bullies as I was a necessary part of a project that nobody was going to stuff up. Too many invested bigger kids and teachers. So of course, I fell in love with the theatre. Long late nights learning the entire script with a jam bun and a thermos of soup, the only people still permitted on school property… The terror of final rehearsals with props going missing, costumes not fitting and actors developing tonsillitis or laryngitis. Chronic sleep deprivation, lugging the precious script with all the hand written notes and stage directions in it everywhere, the glory of finally being in the theatre with the red velvet curtains, the uncomfortable seats, the smell of dust and make-up under hot lights. Even now just the empty theatre is a trigger for me, makes my skin ripple with electricity, brings lines of Shakespeare to my mouth.
Theatre is electric. It is painfully beautiful and so temporary. To watch it come to life slowly through readings and stilted rehearsals, dropping lines, forgetting stage directions, awkward pretend relationships, then all the trappings start to come along and develop it into the final work of art, it’s such an amazing experience. In year 12 I won a drama scholarship that allowed me to see almost every work by the SA Theatre company free for the next year. I revelled in it. I love the heightened atmosphere of theatre, I love to dress up for it – where else do I get to dress up? For one night I take out my pearls and leave my life behind.
There was another scheme (with a different theatre) I was part of for a while a few years back, with discounted tickets for the unemployed. It wasn’t set up well. I had to get there early to wait in line. We’d wait until all the other tickets had sold, and every other patron was seated, then we’d be able to get ours. We had to wear a big orange ticket displaying that we were on the discount. We were lead to seats in a special area in the dark, trying not to disturb anyone else. It was pretty humiliating, I only went along a couple of times. Half the point of theatre is to be taken out of your own life for a little while, to leave it all behind.
The most painful part of theatre is what makes it so powerful. It is ephemeral. It always ends. Any night you go, that is the only night exactly like that one. The audience, that exact cast, the lines said just so, the laughter at that point, it is utterly unique. It is like life. Theatre reminds us that the days may be followed by many more days the same, but they are none of them the same. They are all utterly unique and unrecoverable. At the end of the productions I was part of, we did the bump out, we laughed with the intense relief of knowing all the moderating had happened and there was nothing more we could do, we shared drinks and ice-cream. Life went back to normal. And I cried for days every time.
As someone who struggles with major dissociation, theatre is very special to me. To sit only a few feet away from living people who are transporting me to another world, who are inviting me in and sharing a character, a situation, a feeling with me is incredible. It captures me in a way totally different to film or other entertainment. My hair stands on end, I weep when they weep, I feel my heart race when they scream, and when I laugh it is we the audience who laugh, a huge temporary collective I am part of. Good theatre captures me and I feel alive. We few people for a little time put aside our names, our lives, our roles and agree to pretend that the world is different. The very notion of being able to ask people to share this contract fills me with excitement. If we can do it for theatre, where else? Do we not do this everywhere, in every place, in every relationship? Do we realise the power we have?
The very notion of theatre is a crucial part of my life. I’ve spoken with people who deride the concept of theatre, the idea of acting, who think that with costume and prop we disguise life. For me this is not so. With a little greasepaint, with some coloured cardboard screens we take the banal and transform it. We reveal life. All art has this transformative quality, writers take ink and paper and paint worlds. Artists turn stone into women, paint into sunsets, clay into vessels. Theatre transforms a space, sometimes a very shabby and tumbledown space, into another world. The power of this action entrances me. Children do this instinctively, with a shawl I am a gypsy, with a helmet I am an astronaut, a tiara of stems and leaves makes me Queen of the Forest. I love the theatrical in us, the impulse that makes us shake off the heavy weight of labels and choose our own, lightly but with resolve. I think of Dame Edith Sitwell, who even in sickness and age, reading her poetry from a wheelchair, was splendid if bizarre, with magnificent turbans, velvet, brocade, and sparkling jewels.
As a child trapped in a world often grey, in a place where I had little voice, few choices, and little control, theatre showed me a way to transform anything into something magnificent. How to own a space – the way an installation artist does, or a musician owns the stage, how to take whatever I had and use dreams to make it mine. It didn’t matter if they were painted cardboard, if the silks were polyester, the flowers in the vase just grasses from the creek. It didn’t matter what I had to work with, how destitute, how broken hearted, or how sick. It didn’t matter if nobody else could see it or understand it. We live in our dreams, and theatre is just a hall of dreams.