To be or not to be a real person

By Allie Connell

Being a theater major often presents you with the question: what am I doing with my life? Whether this question comes from your parents or your roommate who is majoring in chemical engineering or even from yourself, you are constantly asked to question what the theater industry, as well as your role in it, is bringing to the stage (all puns intended). “To be or not to be a real person” again becomes the eternal question.

Amanda Joinson/Collegian
Amanda Joinson/Collegian

As a theater practitioner, I consider myself an artist. If you are scoffing at my last sentence, I assure you it’s OK because I am right there with you. I often jest that I am getting two degrees: one in Theater where I am learning how to build the box I am going to be living in, and one in English where I am learning how to write and read to entertain myself whilst living in said box. I’ve spent my college career coming up with stories, getting friends to act them out, and then showing the product to a willing audience. Does that scenario remind you of anything? Childhood memories, perhaps? When your roommates are writing analyses on Supreme Court cases and you are walking around the apartment honing your squirrel-like movements for an acting class exercise, it’s very easy to question your existence.

The other important facet of an artist is that they physically, emotionally and often socially can do nothing else with their lives. In the face of being a real person and having a job with health benefits, the artist recoils in fear because their creative stimulus is removed. “I just want to express myself, be me, do me,” the artist often cries when forced to take up a temp job from 9 to 5 in order to pay their agent. Pause for dramatic effect.

But regardless of how cynical or sarcastic I may seem about the plight of the artist, I am one of them and proud to be so. When I ask myself why I do what I am doing or if I’m serving the greater good or if I am living up to the expectations of being a real person (or not), I am reminded that I can do little, if not anything else. This is not entirely because I’m not capable (my math skills may speak against me), but instead that I am not fulfilled by doing anything else. Theater allows us to tell stories — the stories of the playwrights, the actors and actresses, the director, the designers — to anyone who is willing to sit down and listen for an hour (or three). As theater practitioners, or the high-brow term “artists,” we give the gift of stories. We allow audience members to sit in a dark theater and immerse themselves in a 19th century Russian home or into the mind of a schizophrenic. We create places and people who exist only to elicit empathy or understanding for ourselves as artists and for the wider breadth of humanity.

Nov. 1 marks the opening of the UMass Theater Department’s season with a production of Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal”.  The season opener begins the 40th anniversary season of the department, featuring plays all written by women. Treadwell’s “Machinal” offers a unique expressionist view into the life of a woman who is imprisoned by an industrialized world and the actions she takes to free herself from her confines. “Machinal” and the rest of the Theater Department’s season are giving voices and life to the work of women playwrights. The stories, though not uniquely focused on gendered issues, are the narratives of women who have survived the whips and scorns of time. In this difficult political time where rights are being decided about women’s bodies and pay grades are determined by your sex, giving voices to women and letting their stories be told to our community is something to be applauded. It then becomes the audience’s task to see these shows, breathe the air of the actors and actresses and listen to these harrowing narratives.

Perhaps I’ve just justified to myself why I am spending an inordinate amount of money to feel things and jump around like a squirrel in a college class. If I’m the only person I’ve convinced that theater is worth it, then so be it. At least giving myself a raison d’etre as an artist will allow me to keep producing stories that will hopefully convince a few more people that this art form is just as necessary as chemical engineering.

Allie Connell is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]