I love live theater. I can’t remember the first live theater production I ever saw, but I remember the first one that really got to me. It was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at E.J. Thomas Hall circa 1986.
I had grown up listening to JCS; my mom was a fanatic and played the original Broadway soundtrack almost every weekend. But that first production opened my eyes to the power of live theater, to its infinite possibilities.
In that production, Jesus dressed like he had just walked off the set of Miami Vice; the Sanhedrin was costumed in biker leathers; and the disciples ate corn chips and drank beer at the last supper. I’ve lost count of the number of productions of JCS I’ve seen over the years — somewhere around 14, I think — but when I think of that musical, that first experience is always the one I remember most vividly.
In the past month, I’ve seen three live theater productions, from amateur productions to professional touring companies. All were painfully bad or plain disappointing.
I was beginning to lose my faith in the power of live theater, which seemed to have lost its social relevance.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good musical or even a rollicking comedy; they certainly have their places in live theater. But, what I really love is social theater, the kind that gets under the skin, and — most importantly — teaches us about ourselves and our place in the world.
None of the three productions I saw recently even attempted to do any such thing. As a result, they felt superficial, saccharine, sensationalized. There was no life to those performances, no fire. There was no there there.
And then I saw Corpus Christi.
In fact, in this version, produced by Heads Up Productions, gender is completely fluid: Mary was played by a man, Joseph by a woman, the disciples were represented by both men and women of different races, ages, shapes, sizes, and religious backgrounds. It was dizzying and inspirational. It made me wonder. It made me think. It made me laugh. It made me cry. That’s what theater should be about, not just bodies on a stage moving around like machines, hitting their marks.
It should make you feel. Something. Anything.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention here that Heads Up Productions was co-founded by a former student of mine, Benjamin Rexroad. He’s going by Benjamin these days, but he was always Ben back then, and he’s always been Benny to me.
Benny was in the first class I had when I became a teacher. He took nearly every class I offered. I was the Drama Club adviser; he was the president. I was the Yearbook adviser; he was the editor. He took my Introduction to Theater course, and I directed him in three productions.
Now Ben has become the director. He majored in Theater at The University of Akron and co-founded Heads Up Productions with Stow resident TJ Jozsa, whom I had the pleasure of watching grow up on the Stow-Munroe Falls High School stage. Both of them, as well as the excellent company they have put together (including Stow resident Nici Romo, read her blog about the play here.), clearly understand that theater should be a visceral experience. When done correctly, with knowledge, openness and passion, it is.
In the theater class I teach, we read and watch plays from various genres. The students always enjoy and learn something from such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Brighton Beach Memoirs, but, it’s not until we enter the social theater unit at the end of the year when we read The Laramie Project or watch Rent that students react emotionally. They actually cry.
They cry when we read aloud Matthew Shepard’s father’s speech, and they cry all over again when we watch the film based on the play. The rawness of their emotions move me to tears, and I get chills because that’s what theater is supposed to be about. It’s why theater education is necessary.
I was reminded of all of this as I sat in the audience at Corpus Christi, feeling inspired once again, so proud that Benny was carrying on the theater tradition in such a meaningful way.
There I was, the teacher learning from the student. It felt right. It felt complete. And it helped renew my faith in the power of theater.