The reader is me.
I ordered DISGRACED over a year ago, yet it sat on the bookshelf unopened. Why? Because I was scared to read it. I have heard plenty about it - amazing reviews from the New York Times, Theatre Communications Group/American Theatre Magazine, and countless other publications. Friends who had seen productions raved about it’s probing nature and the deep questions it provoked. But I also recognized that content deserving of the Pulitzer Prize wouldn’t be safe. It would be powerful, challenging, bold, and dangerous. These are all the qualities I love in a good play, but they frighten me too. I couldn’t read it. I was comfortable in my complacency. But by not reading this play and venturing into dark waters, I turned myself into a hypocrite. I am the artistic director of a theatre company that loves to push the envelope and make its’ patrons face reality. What kind of a leader am I if I am unwilling to do so myself?
This self acknowledgment led me to question the Why.
Why write plays? Read them? Produce them? Attend them?
My biggest argument steals from a brilliant playwright, Terrence McNally. When addressing the League of American Theatres and Producers he postulated, “I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”
I believe this full-heartedly. However, this stance took a while to develop. As a younger actor, I was in theatre for myself. I wanted to be recognized and celebrated. I was selfish. What a terrible quality to bring to the theatre community - which is just that, a fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. Theatre does not lie in the individual, it lives in the other. This is not to say that the individual is insignificant, for it can be a single person’s voice or actions that incite a movement, but the individual mentality must think outside of the self. Recognizing this fact was the catalyst in the evolution of my theatrical reasoning. The plays that I produce are not for me, they are for my community. The voices that are projected in a Relative Theatrics production have a goal to make audience members reflect on the world we live in and talk about the thoughts and questions that the material provokes. Don’t get me wrong, it is flattering to hear the positive reactions to a play that I have poured myself into while directing and producing; but I don’t do it solely for me. I do it for you. I do it for us. The community. The world.
This mission resonates in everything I do. It’s why I love the concept of the chat-back after a Relative Theatrics production and why I started a play-reading series where plays are examined by a diverse group of people and backgrounds. Discussing theatre with others fills me with momentum and drive. Dialogue incited by art gives me a sense of purpose. That is why I put my fear to bed and picked up a play that I knew would ask the instinctual, deep-rooted questions of human actions. I could face these issues through a number of other mediums: paintings, novels, essays, etc. But the play contains the magic to emotionally resonate with me in a dramatic way that packs a punch. I relate to the characters more than I do when viewing a portrait or reading a novel. And the events that befall these characters sweep me off my feet and can trigger sobbing in a public bathroom.
We need to support the art that makes us think. We need to ask the hard questions that force us to look at the world with a wider scope. I thank all the community driven artists in the world for giving me avenues to societal rumination. Art cannot change the world, but it can change the way we individually view the world. In an interview that followed the text of DISGRACED, Akhtar proposes that “the only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is, now.” Let us all take a risk and tackle the hard topics affecting our society. It may be unsettling, but it’s worth it.