Theatre Not Just Art, But Public Service

The way theatre is taught and performed should be re-envisioned to emphasize the notion of theatre as a public service.

Drama is considered an art form throughout the world, on par with visual arts, music, dance and literature. At AUC, theatre courses are housed in the Department of the Arts, a categorization that aligns with this interpretation. But theatre’s roots are not artistic. In civilizations across the globe, theatre originated in ceremonies that were typically religious or sacred in nature. As societies grew more complex, their theatrical or performative traditions began to take place under less ‘sacred’ circumstances. However, theatre remained a pedantic exercise. Whether the performance was a Greek tragedy, a medieval Islamic ta’ziya or a classical Japanese kabuki performance, it sought to educate through entertainment, to inspire the audience to reflect on social and personal topics. That theatre is educational in purpose conflicts with the idea of drama as chiefly an art form and necessitates a revision of the way we teach, perform and understand the discipline, according to Mark “Coach” Mineart, Associate Professor of Practice in performance.

“When we think of theatre as art, we miss the fact that its purpose has always been to provide a public service,” Mineart said. “We go to the theatre for the same reason we go to a church, temple or mosque –– to connect with something larger, to experience spiritual intimacy, whether that intimacy be with a higher power or a community of our fellows. We seek connection and community, and that’s what theatre, from its origins as a religious activity, makes available for an audience.”

Mineart cites as an example the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he directed at AUC in Spring 2013. “In a country going through difficult times, it’s especially important that a play not be mere entertainment,” he explained. “Midsummer was a chance not just to laugh but to create a stronger community through the laughter and optimism the play inspires.”

Mineart’s philosophy of theatre as public service defines his teaching of the discipline as well. “My teaching is not theory-based,” he said. “I teach through experiential learning, through doing, and if I talk at length, it’s to guide that process of doing. Our actions as members of a production must always be guided by the play’s best interests.”

This perspective can be unpopular with actors, Mineart contended. “Some actors have a tendency to want to make things about them. They want to emote and express themselves, which may not align with the play’s purpose and potential,” he noted. “I always bring the focus back to the story, to the writer’s intent.”

Training actors to put the play’s intent before their own interests is fundamental to the idea of theatre as a public service, Mineart added. “The essence of service is to provide something necessary or beneficial that betters the whole,” he said. 

Recasting theatre as a selfless activity has not diminished its appeal at AUC, Mineart estimates that students alone put in more than 8,700 hours of work on Midsummer, and the audience turnout was the largest of any English-speaking AUC production. But the theatre world at large is trending toward obscurity, he noted. In the United States, training programs are producing more actors than ever, while the theatergoing population is shrinking as well as getting older, on average. There are also fewer productions being financed. “Young people aren’t going to plays, and the industry reaction has been to steer theatre toward the cinematic,” observed Mineart. “There are bigger productions and more special effects, but a lot of this is just frosting on the cake, concealing a lack of substance. Plays don’t need to be flashier; they need to be more nutritious.”

For an example of nutritious, it’s easy to turn to Shakespeare, whose works are often difficult to appreciate when read but, nonetheless, have engaged live audiences for centuries. “Shakespeare’s work wasn’t meant to be read,” Mineart argued. “Nobody should read Shakespeare, but they should see and experience his work because it’s in the performance that what’s timeless about those plays comes out. We don’t turn to Shakespeare because we care about life in 16th-century England, but rather to see how what he wrote about 400 years ago still resonates with us. We seek commonalities across time.”

If that seems a daunting task, Mineart does his best to keep the learning of it very simple, focusing on three fundamental skills: being seen, heard and understood. “Everything on stage must be perceivable to the audience,” he said. “It’s not enough for an actor or actress to feel what his or her character is going through. In fact, it’s absolutely unnecessary. The audience doesn’t care about the actors’ feelings. They only know what’s communicated to them, what message they receive. What the performance makes them feel.”

This approach contradicts certain acting styles, such as method acting, wherein actors try to create in themselves the feelings and thoughts of their characters, often utilizing their own memories and experiences for inspiration. “There are schools of thought that say you should try to embody the character, to go beyond the script and even create aspects of the character for yourself that didn’t exist before,” said Mineart. “I teach my students instead to look to the script for information and inspiration, to respect the play as it stands, to peer into the heart of the thing.” 

Bringing the words on the page to life and learning the three fundamentals is a process of trial and error that students undertake in Mineart’s classes. “We prepare monologues, for example, and critique the performances,” he explained. “Was the actress seen and heard? Was she understood? I try to incorporate other disciplines as well. If you take a song and sing it while omitting every third word, it’s incomprehensible, the point being that precision in reproducing the text is critical.”

Actors become better performers by getting more deeply in touch with both the text and their own bodies. All of Mineart’s students are required to exercise several times a week, whether by lifting in the gym, doing yoga or playing a sport. He added, “In terms of grappling with the text, we break down speeches, looking for their key parts, asking ourselves what the character is trying to say and how to best communicate that to the audience. How to enact that communication from that particular character so as to move the story forward in the most powerful way for the audience.”

Mineart disputes the notion that calling theatre a public service somehow demeans it. “In the United States, as well as in a country like Egypt, where there are large disparities between socioeconomic classes, it can become easy to look down on the idea of service or those who serve as menial,” he said. “But service is our greatest gift, and from teaching to being a doctor or carpenter, we’re best at our jobs when we’re used well, when our skills are utilized for the benefits of others. Great texts can be both enjoyable and life-altering, and people working in theatre succeed by practicing their craft in the service of those stories. Looking from the outside, if we do well, the audiences may call what we do art. But that is up to them, not to us.”