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From the Empathy Gym | The Mission

From the Empathy Gym | The Mission

Bill

Bill English, Artistic Director

The Mission: To tell stories that uplift our spirits, deepen self-awareness, and nurture compassionate community.

It’s been a while since I looked closely at our mission, our promise to our community, and I was glad to feel that this simple phrase still inspires me, that the three-legged stool of our mission still has the capacity to capture our devotion. So, as we are about to announce the selections for our 15th Season, I thought it might be helpful to look closely at these words, starting with the word, “mission,” a word with deep spiritual overtones which poses a powerful challenge. It is so easy for us to get lost in the details of putting up show after show, so easy to get lost in the ego trips of leadership, of being important, of getting credit, or obsessing over criticism. It is inevitable that we will sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are here to serve others, not ourselves, and that being recognized or praised have little to do with our purpose. Keeping our eye on the mission can be the most vital part of keeping our leadership role in perspective.

To uplift our spirits:

As the first and perhaps the most important leg of our mission, we must do work which lifts our spirits up out of darker places: out of our fears, our grumbling disappointments, our capacity to criticize ourselves and others, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet put it. Let alone the calamities of nature and politics that happen outside our troubled hearts. We need to be lifted up! The natural choice for lifting spirits is

The natural choice for lifting spirits is comedy. Laughter may be the greatest blessing given to mankind. It takes us out of our misery, our worries, shakes up our body, heals the soul and gives us perspective.

The natural choice for lifting spirits is comedy. Laughter may be the greatest blessing given to mankind. It takes us out of our misery, our worries, shakes up our body, heals the soul and gives us perspective.It transforms our pain. How would we live without it? Our current season is blessed with three strong comedies, almost as if some prophetic voice whispered in our ears that we would desperately need to laugh this year.It transforms our pain. How would we live without it? Our current season is blessed with three strong comedies, almost as if some prophetic voice whispered in our ears that we would desperately need to laugh this year.

But tragedy can lift our spirits in a different way. When we watch Proctor stands up to the despotic Puritan leadership in The Crucible, or Antigone to the totalitarian regime of Creon, we are saddened by their suffering, but our hearts swell with hope when we are reminded that the most courageous among us will put their lives on the line for a higher spiritual truth. We are ennobled by these heroes, remembering that we, too, are capable of standing up for what is right, fighting against evil with spirits lifted up!

To Deepen Self-Awareness:

I often like to think of our stage as a 28’ x 16’ mirror, honed and polished by the actors’, director’s and designers’ arts to reflect us back to ourselves. We come to the theatre to look deeply into our hearts, our minds, our souls. And of course, we don’t always like what we see. Playwrights are the prophets of our time and prophecy is seldom kind. An old-testament prophet might say, “Behold, thy sins, mankind, and mend thy foolish ways.” Or from Hamlet once again:

“Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge; You go not till I set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you.”

When I look out at our audience, about to face what they know will be a difficult and challenging play, I see courage. I see a willingness to face the mirror and see ourselves with all our weaknesses. I think a quality which distinguishes patrons of San Francisco Playhouse is our willingness to deepen self-awareness, even though we know the experience will be painful. Hamlet, like many of our playwrights, relentlessly pursues his mother Gertrude and is rewarded with a glimmer of understanding.

“O Hamlet, speak no more. Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; And there I see such black and grained spots. As will not leave their tinct.”

Deepening self-awareness is not for the faint of heart. And it is an honor to serve such a worthy mission by exposing our courageous audiences to the heart of our human darkness, that we may be made more aware.

Nurture compassionate community:

It may be that we can only fulfill the third leg of our mission by honoring and embodying the first two. By lifting our spirits, we rebirth the best in ourselves, we create a kind of “amazing grace” that empowers us out into the world with “good news.” And when we deepen our self-awareness by facing our fears, our weaknesses and our suffering, we attain a greater understanding. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen teacher says in You Are Here:

“Love and compassion are made of one substance, which is called understanding. If you understand, you can love but if understanding is not there, it is impossible for you to have compassion.”

When we create theatre that lifts up our spirits, when we courageously open our hearts to deeper self-awareness, we enable understanding that inevitably flows out into our community to nurture compassion.

When we create theatre that lifts up our spirits, when we courageously open our hearts to deeper self-awareness, we enable understanding that inevitably flows out into our community to nurture compassion. Ours is a mission of only ten words, but they are glorious and powerful words that guide and inspire everything we do.

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Bill

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Bill English
Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in fifteen years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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