Theatre as Therapy
Kathryn Lynn Morgen
Here we are! You, there, with all of your backstory. All of the choices you have made, or haven’t made, all of your experience in this life, your experience of the world and the people around you, and all of their experience, and all of mine.
There are so many stories in this room, and when we tell stories we have the power to heal something in someone else.
How do we frame a story? Some stories focus on words that were spoken, sounds that were heard, some focus on the visuals—how the sky looked that day or what someone was wearing. Some focus on a specific event and some are more long-term stories that string many events together.
This level of detail in the world has struck me all my life, from a very young age. There are layers upon layers of meaning embedded into our lives. There is no way to control all of these aspects of our environment, but they are all connected. There is no way to truly understand all of these connections—but they have meaning.
In theatre we can control many of these aspects—all of these elements, we can choose the connections, the layers, that we want to communicate. We can choose and control how to communicate the connections we believe in, not because these are what we think the piece of theatre is about—but because they are the essence of what it means to us.
We can create worlds.
Now, let’s say, for example, your story is thus:
Life is pretty chaotic in not-a-good-way from a young age, and you tend toward empathic qualities. As a child you don’t have the tools to create boundaries between yourself and others. You start reasoning out the choices everyone around you is making so that you can feel safe in the midst of all of these unknowns, believing that if you understand where everyone is coming from, then everything will be okay.
But there are so many layers and so many details and things change depending on all of these variables and it is all so much.
Where does that leave you when everything isn’t okay? What belongs to you and what belongs to others? What is being directed or scripted by what other people want?
When you can’t understand your own emotions, you can’t fully experience your own joy, so you don’t know how to follow your heart, and you can’t fully experience your own anger, so you don’t learn how to express yourself.
You lose yourself in this place and there is danger of never finding yourself.
Now you’re in high school. You were in theatre in middle school and really liked it and all but, like, haven’t done it in a couple years or whatever, and a friend of yours decides he wants to audition for the fall play but you have to come with him because he does not want to go alone and “okay! yes! I’ll do it!”
And you are cast as a lead.
And holy fuck, all of a sudden you have responsibility, accountability, you feel empowered, and scared, but you know that you can do it, and oh by the way, everyone around you is feeling the same things and working toward the same goal and there is nothing but support in the room AND oh by the way you are cast as Mary Hatch in It’s a Wonderful Life, who is a lively, playful, loving woman and you get to explore what it might be like to live in a world of nurturing, emotional vulnerability and laugh and cry and love and be loved.
You can find yourself. Suddenly you have a voice, you have ideas, and beliefs, you recognize your own personal creativity and process. You recognize your truth and you can share it with others. It is exhilarating, it is terrifying and joyous and heartbreaking and healing.
Life is alive and to be lived.
One of the things I love so much about theatre is this sense of Alchemy.
Alchemy is defined (by Google, anyway) as a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.
Everything in the theatre is in specific relationship to everything else. All of these combinations make the theatre what it is. Not only the dynamic of the actors, but also the sound and lights and set, and the audience.
Every interaction in the theatre is completely unique to the singular moment of its existence. Each moment means something to everyone involved and each meaning is different, but we are together, sharing, transforming, creating.
As someone who has lived with crippling anxiety and post-traumatic stress I find this extraordinarily therapeutic. As an actor, director, designer, producer, crew member, audience member… Theatre is the glue that holds my life together.
As an actor, my job is to trust. Trust the script, my scene partners, my director to guide me, and myself to be present and accountable, to listen, respond, and create a person. An entire person!
As a director, I hold the ultimate vision. I am the one who says, “This is the world we live in. These are its principles, the laws that govern this reality.” Then, I guide the team in the actualization of that vision to its greatest potential.
As a set designer, my job is to manifest that vision into the physical environment of the story, often speaking subconsciously to the audience with specific intention.
For Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I worked with director Phil Jordan on the concept of the set. Grief, Near-death Experiences, Classical Greek Architecture, Film Noir and Stained Glass all played a part in creating this world, which had to provide 7 different environments—including a cafe, church, home, an airport, and the afterlife…
Theatre is truly a collaborative art. Each person has infinite variables within them with which to manifest the same goal. To feel and express the same feelings that everyone else is feeling in the way that only they can, together.
Every piece of it offers me something to explore and something to discover. Something for me to take with me on my journey, and something for me to leave behind that no longer serves me.
Sometimes, the greatest lesson theatre has to offer is impermanence. That everything which begins also ends. That it is not where we came from, but how far we’ve come. That it isn’t about what we’ve done but the way that we’ve done it—with intention, with connection, with sharing, with trust, and love.