I am a professional theatre manager, and I have discovered the secret to life.
In my career, I have held positions with titles like production stage manager, events manager, associate director of operations and production, assistant professor of theatre management, and a multitude of other sometimes-fancy-sounding titles that rarely encompass what I actually do. I have worked for years – more than 20, in fact – to hone my craft: the art of cultivating space for human beings.
Growing up in Middle Georgia, I was bound to develop a strong appreciation for music. How many times can a teenager sit next to Liz Reed’s grave, smoking pot, talking about the meaning of life, listening to the Allman Brothers, and not fall in love with the sweet sounds of Southern Rock? It was also music that led me to fall in love with theatre.
The number of times my father called us into the living room on a Sunday afternoon to watch the final concert that Harry Chapin played on PBS is more than I can count on all my typing digits. He played a prominent role in my father’s life, but my brothers and I would roll our eyes and sulk on into the living room to stare at the screen for approximately 10 minutes before asking – in a rather whiney tone, I might add – if we could leave the room. It wasn’t until my father took me to see Macon State College Impromptu Players’ performance of the Harry Chapin musical “Lies and Legends” that I realized my calling.
As I sat there, sobbing through their portrayal of the story-song “Mr. Tanner,” I realized Harry Chapin and his music were just stories: the same stories my family told sitting around the kitchen table at Thanksgiving, the same stories I’d heard about my great grandfather selling watermelons from the back of his pick-up truck down at Marietta Square, the same stories my father told about learning to say, “I love you” to his father. These were universal narratives that my 11-year-old self could understand, identify with, empathize with. And it made me weep. (I am an ugly crier, so even at 11, public crying was not a frequent event.)
Sitting in that theatre, tears running down my face, I had my moment: I realized the arts could change a person. They were changing me right then, making me feel something I didn’t think possible, giving me a way to process and begin to understand the complicated emotions of adulthood and the ramifications of human beings being disempowered and subjugated. The experience forever altered my path.
Since then, I have had the pleasure of creating some of the most exciting, provocative, charged theatre in this country (and a few other countries) with a number of different artists and companies. Recognizing that the social change we need to see in the world often starts with our own ability to step into another person’s shoes is what drew me to theatre. Knowing that my work as a professional artist can make a difference in one person’s life – that’s what keeps me in the game.
My job, my responsibility as an artist is to create a space – physical, emotional, mental. As a stage manager, it’s space for an artist or creator to be as vulnerable and emotionally open as necessary to embody a character. When I’m working as an events manager, I’m creating space where people feel empowered to try something new, to take a chance on vulnerability and change their experience of the world. In the classroom, I hope to cultivate an environment that affords young people the capacity to explore, fail, succeed, try on the different emotions of a human being, practice empathy, expand their leadership skills, and learn to respect and embrace vulnerability in their everyday lives.
What is a life without empathy and vulnerability and the exploration of ideas and emotions? What is a life without asking why – and seeking the answer? What is a life if you’re not thinking critically and engaging with the world around you? Harry Chapin and the Macon State College Impromptu Players taught me this. The arts and humanities help me to process and hold space for myself in my own struggle to know who I am in this world.
And, that, my friends, is the secret to life: practicing empathy and vulnerability with yourself and those around you each and every day. The theatre taught me that.