Houston has world-class museums, both for art and natural history, and numerous venues for live theatre, and all these venues are traditionally packed with people thirsting for what is on offer. In fact, as we were entering Houston on the freeway, we saw an exit to ‘Theatre District.’ I thought, “Wow, you don’t see that everywhere you go.” So live theatre is far from dead.
I quickly counted twelve professional theatre venues in Houston, showing such things as Seussical the Musical, Aladdin: The Musical, The Three Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express, Woyzeck, Hot Mikado, The Debbie and Doyle Show, Shakespeare and more. When I got there, I tried to get tickets for a few of them and found them mainly sold out. I was able to go to the Broadway road show of the hit musical Aladdin with my daughter and was completely wowed.
I’m not a big fan of musical theatre, so in order for a musical to impress me, the singers/actors have to deliver their roles and songs with enough energy to convince me that the degree of emotion they are feeling is such that there is nothing else to do but burst into song and dance. And the cast of Aladdin did just that. It was funny, well-acted and well-danced with gorgeous costumes, décor and very clever, tight staging. There was even a functional flying carpet whose strings I could not find. Now how did they do that? Okay, it was pure escapism, but hey, it was fun, and best of all, the house was packed with all ages enjoying themselves.
Speaking of energy, you might say that the energy we see onstage and in productions, musicals or otherwise is too big to be true to life. However, think about it, do you ever feel like bursting with emotion, whether it’s anger, joy, excitement or any other feeling in the emotional spectrum? Sure you do, but you control yourself and keep within acceptable limits because society has taught us that’s how we’re supposed to behave. But when acting, it is not only acceptable, it is necessary to let those emotions out. There is a case, therefore, to say that theatre is actually truer to life than most of us are on a daily basis.
The Greeks loved theatre and especially tragedy because of catharsis. The dictionary definition of catharsis is: “a. the purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art; b: a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension.”
Nobody could say that the Greek plots represented actions that most people experience in their lifetimes – things like fratricide, infanticide, patricide coupled with mother marriage, etc – and yet the emotions that led to these deeds taking place are universal, so seeing and performing in theatre affords us the chance to experience strong emotion and energy without having to suffer the negative consequences.
Okay, back to my theatrical travels, I am now on my way to Dubai where I will be training three groups of young people in a thing called story theatre. We will practice for five weeks, culminating in a show on August 22.
What is story theatre? Story theatre is the dramatic presentation of one or more stories told by a group of actors who play multiple roles and provide narration. It’s characterised by the use of simple “scenery” like chairs and tables arranged to suggest various settings, simple props like scarves or cardboard tubes used in different ways in more than one story, and costume pieces like aprons, glasses and hats. Music is also often incorporated into story theatre performances.
Story theatre was developed in the 1960s as a definite theatrical art form by Paul Sills, the son of Viola Spolin who is often credited with being the mother of improvisational theatre. Paul put a series of story plays together in a show called Story Theatre. This show went from its Chicago birthplace to a very successful run on Broadway.
I have spent some time this year performing story theatre and have done such plays with kids at HeadStart International School including Thank Goodness!, The Girl Who Cried Wolf!, Harry Potter, How it Began and Harry Potter and the Magic Mirror. This summer I will be using stories from the Middle Eastern folkloric hero Juha, who might rightfully be called a comic sufi. I will report on how this goes next month, but let me close by giving you a synopsis of one of my favourite Juha stories.
One day in Baghdad, a beggar at the main gate to the market has an awful day so that at the day’s end he only has one copper coin and a crust of bread for a full day of begging. He laments that he doesn’t even have enough money to buy vegetables to eat with his bread.
Just then, a delicious smell wafts in the air, and the beggar’s stomach grumbles terribly at the odour. A rich man’s cook is preparing a wonderful soup just next to him. The beggar gets the idea he could just wave his bread in the steam of the soup to get some of the taste on it. This he does through the window when the cook isn’t looking, but the rich man himself sees him and calls for the constable to arrest him for trying to steal his soup.
A crowd has gathered, Juha among them, when the beggar explains that he wasn’t trying to steal, he only wanted to wave his bread in the steam. The rich man says, “Well then, you can do that, but you have to pay me.” The beggar protests he has no money. Juha interjects that he would pay for the beggar to wave his bread in the steam of the soup. When the beggar has done so and gone his way happily, Juha pulls out his coin pouch, shakes it and turns to go. The rich man cries out, “Wait a minute! You haven’t paid me!” “Yes, I have,” Juha says, “the sound of money for the smell of soup”.