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Seattle University

All Things Jesuit

Jesuit tradition and the theater

May 6, 2014

Ki Gottberg, professor in Fine Arts, gave a talk on the Jesuit tradition and the theatrical arts at a recent Colleagues gathering. The following is an edited version.

At a conference in Mexico City in 2010, Superior General of the Society of Jesus Father Adolfo Nicolas  spoke of the challenges to Jesuit higher education, specifically regarding the negative effects of the globalization of superficiality. He points out the ease with which so-called "information" can be found, how the most banal thoughts and slack ideas are dispersed with such immediacy throughout the blog-o-sphere, and how "relationship" has been reduced to a marketing concept such as "liking" something or "friending" someone on Facebook. 

Thus the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited, and the difficult, sometimes painful aspects of deep transforming relationship are seen as "hassles."  Of course we have all experienced the effects of such superficiality: in the area of theatre we see audiences dwindling, unless perhaps a celebrity is slumming from their TV show on a live stage, or unless the spectacle presented includes titillation or stagecraft that might, say, crush a performer mid-song, such as in "Spiderman" on Broadway. Our increasingly bounded, pressurized modern existence keeps us on a short leash, on a demanding clock. We don't have time, right now, for all of "that": "that" being whatever takes us so deep we start to get off our "track"; we start to dream, we confront something difficult, we pause. 

But in terms of what we do in the classroom-and onstage-in this institution of higher learning, I am pleased to report old-school methods that promote the depth of thought and imagination that Father Nicolas bemoans remain in full use. Because there are no short cuts in the theatre: the very nature of the work is time intensive, and the discipline and rigor needed to understand and perform, direct or design for the theatre remains the same. 

For example, the student who just played Argan, the Imaginary Invalid-this was his first role at Seattle U. He is a computer science and theatre double major. He has a sharp analytical mind.  And he loves performing. But for theatre, Ishan has had to work hard to get out of his head and into his body: all the analysis in the world can't create the clown walks and the expressive gestures that Ishan needed to free himself to do for this role. When we were considering our season last year, we think of all our students: who has had what roles, who needs a role. 

Our auditions are open to entire campus, but of course we think of our own, since we want to push them, and hope they will rise to the occasions we offer them. Because we were doing this particular play, we offered a clown class taught in the same quarter. I thought specifically of Ishan when choosing "The Imaginary Invalid." After all, here is a character that needs to be very controlling, but also at the mercy of all he can't control. How perfect for this young man who is pulled two ways by his interests? And he won the role fair and square through auditions. Performing this role, finally, has allowed Ishan to put to use all that he has been struggling with and climbing through in his theatre classes. He has crossed the Rubicon, as it were, and now knows he can do it. Well, congratulations. And so what?  

Here's what. 

I teach acting-that is my training-I have an MFA in performance. Let me tell you what an actor has to do to really embody a role, and what I am attempting to teach. In those remarks of Father Nicolas, he talks about the fragmentation and examination we must do to truly understand, the need to REBUILD oneself from these examined fragments, to find and love the universal-"the face of Christ," he calls it-at the center of our existence. This is the exact process of going deep into a role for an actor-you have to dismember before you can remember. It's like acting is practice for what this Father tells us we need to do to live our Jesuit mission.  

So an actor, to go there, needs to desire to not know from the get-go, but rather to float her awareness: allow herself to weigh, to play, to wander in the possibilities of another human being. She has to ask many questions, construct a biography of the character's past, attempt to tie her own experience to that of the character. Granted, that character has been created on the page and is a construct of a playwright (maybe even a female playwright!), and this constructed human being has been refined from raw material through the process of contemplation and rewriting that a playwright must do. 

But this refined being, like finer wine, gives the actor pause, a moment of confrontational contemplation. "How can I honestly connect with the character I am asked here to embody?" And thus must an actor pause, and surrender, and allow a slower, starker, more specific reality to infuse her bounded, pressurized modern existence. She must examine the many fragments of the character, compare them to her own experience, and create out of these fragments the whole cloth of a character an audience can believe really exists before them. And the actor must create an inner life (often called motivation or the inner monologue) that gives rise to the outward behaviors and language attributed to the character in the script. 

And this ties directly to what Father Nicolas says when he speaks about the difference between FANTASY, a flight from reality, and calls us to let our imagination GRASP reality. He says, "in other words, depth of thought and imagination in the Ignatian tradition involves a profound engagement with the real, a refusal to let go until one goes beneath the surface. It is a careful analysis (dismembering) for the sake of integration (remembering) around what is deepest." 

"Real creativity," he goes on to say, "is an active dynamic process of finding responses to real questions, finding alternatives to an unhappy world that seems to go in directions that nobody can control." And this is where he speaks about this "floating awareness" that allows one to make a choice even when someone is unsure, using one's best judgment. This is what we ask our students to do on a daily basis. And this develops that creative muscle that will give them strength as they venture into the world, regardless of what career they pursue. 

Father Nicolas ends his talk asking Jesuits to think not about just maintaining the status quo, but "where are we needed most? Where and how can we serve best?" He speaks about the ambiguity and "unfinished endings" that are found in the Gospels, and how unsettling this can be for us. But it is this very unsettled quality that sparks us to create, to approach again and again that dynamic process that connects us to power of possibility that lives in us, and that can unite us with "the other" and thus with our deepest selves. 

In my case, and with my students, this unification comes through our deeply considered choices, through the craft and art of creating theatre.