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Handbook Appendices Forms Theatre Scholarships For Theatre Majors, Minors, and Intendeds University Theatre Handbook Table of Contents Theatre Home


No better place to start our discussion than with the attempt to provide a rationale for our existence as a disciplinary offering within an academic institution.  This is not our obligation alone, of course, because every institution must itself make definition of what it values and is attempting to achieve.  Any institution is, at heart, a cadre of people of like mind, bent on developing common interests based on a life’s conviction.  But in this age of specialization, our institutions are being restructured as “holding companies,” becoming a composite of interest groups within interest groups within interest groups, each advocating its own signif­icance.  Yet, each of these smaller groups is bound to the overarching agreements it has with the other groups.  We need, as an academic discipline, to simultaneously focus on our own interests and on the larger institutional goals.  We believe we need to vitally con­tribute to both, the department as well as the university.  This “Perspectives” section of the handbook attempts to clarify the role played by the Department of Theatre in the life of the university.


Supposedly you are able to make a good argument for Seattle Pacific’s goals and inter­ests.  By enrolling here you are investing yourself in those goals, although you are prob­ably  passionately committed to some of them more than to others.  And since you are reading this handbook you obviously have some degree of attraction to the institutional interest group which peoples the theatre program.  Let’s look at the art, the academic discipline, and a few interfacings of the art with our faith.

A.1.a. The impact of the art. 

Theatre is not some peripheral or incidental part of our lives as human beings.  Arguably, it is one of the most important means we have for opening contact with the world.  It serves as a tool for checking ourselves against the actions, appearances and thoughts of others, fulfilling a need to measure ourselves against standard of social acceptability.  Of course, we’re not speaking here primarily in images of purchasing a ticket and sitting in the dark absorbing carefully composed visual and aural experiences.  Such an artificial (read that as  “art”-ificial) creation is only a highly refined and language-drenched abstraction of the real theatre around us.  Fun, and we love it, but things more fundamental lie beneath such highly conventionalized activity.

The theatrical is all around us.  Our ability, say, to look at a person walking across campus and make up stories about that person’s emotional state, sense of purpose, and attitude toward self is a part of our everyday use of the theatrical.  The social scientists refer to this as our “histrionic sensibility.” and it forms the basis for our needful ability to “read” the scene around us.  When we do this we are performing theatre in our head, imagining sce­nario and ascribing motivation.

Children at play employ imagination, characterization, and situation-based scenarios to help them learn to come to grips with the world in which they live.  Skillful development of this play can even give some of them abilities to control that world.  (Yes, some children play better than others.  How were you?)  As adults we do not lose this ability.  We channel it into sophisticated role-playing and into learning to project certain of life’s scenar­ios, through imagination, to alternate conclusions.  Some of us even formalize our practice of these abilities: we “play-out” “plays” and call ourselves “players.”

Ah, yes, you say, all very spooky and something I’ll have to think about.  But at best this use of theatre can be called informal.  What about formal theatre?  You know, scripts, characters and actions meant to be performed by actors, etc.  What can be the impact of that on our lives?  Tremendous, obviously.

Thanks to television, narrative film, and a recent revitalization of the legitimate theatre, our generation has more access to performed theatre than any of our predecessors.  And it becomes a major force in our individual lives as well as in our society.  It comes in a couple of packages.

Have you asked yourself about the strong, nearly hypnotic appeal of the motion picture in our society?  Thanks to the potency of a technology allowing mass audiences, the form has become the predominant incarnation of theatre in our time.

This kind of theatre provides us with vivid experiences of a very direct nature.  It is highly attractive because it seems so vitally lifelike!  Not “lifelike” in that it accurately reflects real life—most films are far too sensational for that—but that it appears to pre­sent itself in much the same manner as we know the experience of “living.”  Life is spontaneous, coming at us in a raw form and leaving us the task of interpretation.  We are assaulted with sensory experiences, bombarded by information, arm-twisted into responding to the moment, and only later, after contemplation, given distance and allowed to direct our perceptions into sensibility.  Film echoes such an experience in the very way it seeks to  communicate: you are asked to submit yourself to the images, the rhythms, and the stirring of emotions as the things of greatest importance.  Motion pictures, through the multiple sensory responses they demand from you, engage you and captivate you far more with their presentation than with their ordered ideas.

But in contrast, have you ever sat in a darkened theatre, a crowd of strangers surrounding you, living performers before you, and been moved to a vital kinship and a sense of com­munity and group emotion, as together you are caught up through living language and ideas into some common place of the human psyche?  Be they serious or comedic, these moments are extraordinary and sublime creations of the art of the theatre, “tribal” experiences as ancient as civilization.  In these events your experience is absolutely controlled to focus you on what is being discussed, the thematic development of the script.

Theatre of this kind usually  places its emphasis on indirect communication.  It doesn’t assault our senses so much as woo them.  Its chief tool is language, and it seeks to create character and situational (plot) symbols which stir its audience to involvement with ideas and to identity with the struggles of being human.  “Indirect” implies that the aim of the experience is not so much an emphasis on the sensory moment as upon con­templation of the substance and implications of actions.  Additionally, this “traditional” theatre makes an issue of employing living performers communicating with a living audience in a real-time setting.  It seeks, thereby,  to foster community and revels in its ceremonial nature.

Actually, the distinction between these two theatrical forms is not at all new, nor are the forms mutually exclusive.  Plays are often like films and films often resemble plays.  The origins of theatre—so far as we can tell—lie in the tribal dance, in storytelling, and in religious expression.  Theatre has always reveled in the sensory response, in the rhythms of the dance, the color, music, and excitement of the tribal celebration.  It, also, has always been employed for imitative story telling; actors substituting for other human beings in the structured telling of a true but imaginative series of events offered for the purposes of tribal contemplation.  And theatre as a religious or spiritual expression has always concerned itself with the issues of being human, both physically and spiritually and in pursuing vivid sensory stimulations as well as cogent commentary on life.

Here, then, is the real stuff of the theatre: sensual experiences which batter us and stir in us our inherent urge for order and comprehension; vicarious rather than actual experiences which spark alive our imaginations; imitative predicaments from which we draw parables to improve our lives.

Extraction: The heart of theatre art is the creation of experiences of heightened sensory appeal which, through their compelling power, engage our intellects in the human trait of  organizing toward making useful sense of what is being perceived.  The essence of the theatrical act purposes to challenge both creators and audience with the situation and feelings of another human being, and in doing it abstracts from cultural commonalties rather than creating the actual situations and feelings themselves.  Its goal is to awaken the ability of people involved toward creating alternative interpretations of what is presented.  It imitates life’s situations, presenting condensed versions of them in order to allow those involved to extract moral lessons which will help clarify and, hopefully, make stronger their spiritual dimension.  (And yep, you’re in the world of academe all right.)

The theatre is among the liveliest of the arts.  It bases itself on life’s experiences, it pre­sents itself through the believable actions of persons (actors), and it can truly only exist through performance made in the presence and imaginations of other persons (audiences).

Theatre may be distinguished from “drama” by understanding that “theatre” is the larger word, encompassing all the elements of the art, while “drama” refers to the literary aspects of the experience: language, characterization, theme, and ordering (plot).  In traditional Western theatre, the two concepts are mutually dependent.  Theatre would be trivial without the undergirding of drama; drama is incomplete without the fulfillment of theatre.

Theatre as a form of artistic expression displays its social usefulness in many ways.  First, as described above, it allows us to gain perspective on who we are in relation to oth­ers.  (This can be dangerous if other individuals or social groups are consistently described only in simplistic, or derogatory, or frightening ways.)  Second, as is the case for the indi­vidual, society can examine itself through a theatre which presents social issues fairly and in enlightening ways.  The stage has always been a catalyst for public discussion, and this cause was, in fact, the impelling factor which led the ancient Greeks to invent the tradi­tional Western form of theatre.  And third, the theatre exists to provide delight.  In this regard it may serve its highest function, that of bringing cohesion and definition to a soci­ety by way of underlining the values of joy and celebration which lie in life’s both darker and lighter vicissitudes.

The theatre also serves the function of a museum.  By provoking the issues and attitudes of past eras—either through resurrected materials or contemporary reconstructions—it can bring to life the elements which comprise a civilization.  It can provide vivid and lifelike illustrations useful in gauging progress or degeneration.  It can instruct in those things which change and those things immutable.  At once it can reveal human history and enlighten our lives by comparison.  Imagine the ethical responsibility placed on the theatre artist!

These musings are only the merest introduction to the purposes of the theatre—one of the oldest continuing institutions of humankind.  Its roots lie in religion, community, celebration, myth making, and delight.  Its sociological and philosophical complexity is overwhelming.  As a human study it is eminently worthy of academic focus. 

As a career preparation it offers great challenges and meaningful rewards.  Your study of this won­derful human endeavor is one which can last a lifetime.

Next Section: A1b. The Nature of the Academic Discipline

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