The National Women's Theatre Festival

why theatre won't save the world

Busily mom-ing and caffeinating, my ears perked right up when NPR intro’d a news story last week: while sharing his personal experience with loneliness, U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murphy discussed its detrimental effects on mental and physical health. I latch onto reports like these. It feels like I’m being seen, and in that feeling I’m briefly buoyed by hope that “one day” I will cultivate a more robust community for me and my little one.

There is a distinct difference between solitude and isolation. As a newly single parent, I crave the former and fear the latter. Too often – when I finally have time for myself – I end up slipping from satisfaction (with my well-earned respite) into anxious thoughts about my child’s well-being:

“If I can’t show him the ways to build lasting connections, will he grow up feeling as lonely as I do right now?”

Where do the lonely go to find one another? As a nation we are suffering an epidemic of loneliness. With third places disappearing, work-from-home jobs increasing, streaming services outpacing movie ticket sales, and automated self-checkouts dominating grocery stores, how and where will we be able to find one another? (Aside from the internet…)

My answer has always been the theatre.

Theatre may not be the obvious choice for most, but from a very young age I’ve found it one of the surest places to develop meaningful relationships. Working on stage, creators connect deeply with the cast and creative team members. Through the last 10 years, I’ve been increasingly interested in how audience members experience community within theatre settings – relating to the performers as well as with fellow viewers. What is the intangible experience of seeing, being seen, and being seen seeing within “the space?” 

The theatre attracts many people who are subject to isolation. And why wouldn’t it? Theatrical performance is meant to be a conversation. Through creative expression, audiences and artists engage in a dialectical exploration. Hopefully it’s one that recognizes, celebrates, or reveals something truthful about our human experiences. For me, it reveals the myth of my loneliness. Even at my lowest and most lost moments, here I can find myself and find solidarity. 

I’m not saying theatre will save the world.

We can’t make systemic, political, or environmental shifts that resolve our current state by putting on a play. But for us lonely folk, I propose that theatre can reconnect us to ourselves and rebuild (or renew) a relationship with our community. And in doing so, we may become more capable of addressing the global issues at hand.

As it stands, the world of performing arts is far from perfect – the effort to dismantle systems of oppression continues. “Yes, and” the practice of theatre continues to be the thing that offers me the most hope in a dreary, disconnected world of all-too-disenfranchised human beings. Within this practice listening is art, responding is art, and every participant wants to bear equal ownership in what moves the action forward. There is a deep necessity to remain present. And there is so much room for humanity. By and large theatre is an experiment, so it’s never quite as ideal as it sounds. But there is a wealth of possibility in these practices. We – whether lonely members of society or overworked constituents of a detached community – can find that which we seek within the practices of theatre.

Although it may not save the world, theatre can be a way of opening a door into a new one. If we gather with intention to see and be seen, what can grow from it? It could be that space of connection so many of us sorely lack.

We can’t assume we’re the only ones who are lonely…that’s what I’m reminding myself as I write this. It takes courage to reach out, whether it be for support or to be supportive. I’d like to consider this my attempt to reach out to you.  Standing at the threshold, what can we find – together – if we walk through the open door?

Written by Kyra Kelley, Director of Communications & Engagement for the National Women’s Theatre Festival

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