Notes from the Empathy Gym – October 2021

Notes from the Empathy Gym – October 2021


As we begin our 19th Season, it feels like we have SO much to celebrate. We celebrate physical health and we celebrate the health of our theatre. Thanks to our miraculous donors and subscribers we not only survived the pandemic but thrived, employing dozens of actors, artists, directors, technicians, and staff members. We want to lift our hearts, hands, and voices and gather to celebrate. We want to join Kool and the Gang for a few rousing choruses of celebration and gratitude. But as I look forward to the coming season, I think of a deeper kind of celebration: to hold up for praise, to exalt, to laud, to glorify. And we want to dedicate our 21-22 Season to that deeper celebration. Celebrate, praise—these are powerful words, and our 19th Season promises to fulfill them.

We have been so frequently knocked down by the pandemic, by injustice that we see and experience around us, by the actions of others that make us feel ashamed by association. We struggle to keep our spirits up. We need inspiration. And our season of celebration will inspire us by showing us how brave humans can be and how worthy of respect. Our hearts will be lifted by their courage to face challenges and their yearning for a better world.

In The Great Khan, Jayden and Ant are held down by racism and by a lack of role models in their community. They struggle to define their self-worth in a world that fails to value them. Through the magic of theatre, Michael Gene Sullivan gives them the mentor they sorely need, and we watch them rise to their mentor’s challenge and fly. We stand in awe of their courage and determination to face down fears.

How is it that Shakespeare, in his late 16th century classic Twelfth Night, understood the fluidity of gender and sexuality? It’s thrilling to listen to his words ring so tellingly true in the 21st century as we wrestle with a great opening for who refuse to be defined by centuries old norms. The glorious music of Shana Taub lifts our hearts as we watch Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines confront their confusion about who and what they are and who they love. We lift them up and behold their beauty as they face their confusion, and we laugh with them as they find their way.

We’ve all been there. Our late 20’s. And most of us would never do it again. A time when we are supposed to be grown up, supposed to have our life on track, supposed to be trusting our beliefs to guide us. And yet we don’t feel grown up, our lives are not moving forward with purpose, and we start to question the beliefs we were spoon-fed in our childhood. The “heroes” in Heroes of the Fourth Turning are confronted by all these fears, locked in the quicksand of doubt, flailing against paralysis; but courageous humans that they are, they push forward, refuse to give up, harness their courage and their spirit lifts us up as they fight their way through this terrifying part of their lives.

What a glorious image – Water by the Spoonful. When our mouths and hearts are so parched by isolation, so battered by pain, deadened by addiction, the smallest spoonful of healing water feels like a gift from heaven. As we tentatively peek out from our burrows where we have hidden through this terrible scourge, how sweet are the smallest gestures of kindness, a tender touch of understanding. We know how healing a word, a smile, a melody can be, even coming across thousands of miles through the internet from one lonely human to another. Oh, how we want to celebrate those tiny pearls of connection and the courageous people who push aside the blanket of alienation to touch another’s heart. We lift them up for praise and they fill our hearts with gratitude.

We are a nation of immigrants. Aside from our indigenous nations, the great majority of us cannot go back more than a few generations before colliding with an ancestor born on foreign soil. And yet many of us have often forgotten how painful it can be to leave one’s homeland and journey across continents and oceans to make a new life. We forgot the loss of home, the smells of our land, the sound of our native tongues ringing in our ears decades after we have left families behind. We have forgotten the fears immigrants overcome, the courage to strike out anew, facing danger and death at every turn. The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin gloriously and miraculously invokes in us those lost memories of our own comings to America so we can lift the courage of more recent immigrants. We can hold them aloft and say, “how wonderful they are.”

As so many of us know, time inexorably marches on and ages each of us. The youthful bodies of our childhood, the stamina of our youth, give way inevitability to poor vision, creaky bones, and stuttering hearts. And yet we also know that we are wiser, wilier, and we have within us the instincts of a winner. We have so much more to say, our hearts are so full of memories, and oh, we can yearn and love as much as ever. In our youth-crazed culture, so many women artists have been kicked to the curb, pushed aside by the American obsession with the fountain of youth. Many, many of the most skilled actors, dancers, singers, triple-threats never work again once they reach their fifties. In Follies, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman hold these women up to celebrate them to us. Look at them. Aren’t they glorious? Aren’t they grand? They can still tap dance, better than the kids, they can sing. They can lift the roof off the theatre. Behold, they are magnificent.

We come to the theatre to celebrate. We come to hold up the spirit of humanity so that it can glimmer in the sun. “We are stardust, we are golden,” said Joni Mitchell, who understood these things. I hope you will join us for this season as we come together to celebrate. We celebrate the past and we celebrate the future. And we celebrate the now. But mostly we celebrate the human capacity to grow and reach and yearn and shine.

– Artistic Director Bill English

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