Developing an Identity Through Theatre
Theatre is the one place you can always count on to express yourself freely and without judgement, this is what seems to be a common sentiment held by those who participate in it — at least to the people I have spoken to. In November, Chaffey College’s Theatre department hosted “Circus Olympus”, a family friendly play about a group of Greek Geeks who travel around and reenact world-renowned stories from Greek mythology; and this is precisely what the department did. Bringing along the necessary equipment, props, costumes and of course the cast themselves, they loaded a van and began touring at local middle schools for grades 6, 7, and 8, as well as community theatres, and at Chaffey College’s campuses. Speaking to those involved in the play, I was able to find out about the joys of theatre and how like many of the arts, it is fundamental to our vitality and existence.
Theatre teaches you the skills to adapt, as well as gives you the opportunity to develop. According to studies in the areas of communication and psychology — and what I remember from one of my communications classes — a person builds an identity by being around other people, who in turn allow a person to distinguish personal aspects of their character, such as their likes and dislikes. An obvious example of this would be in school, where many of us learn who we are, and how we are different or similar, to our peers. It seems that to some extent, theatre is most certainly a place where one must adapt to their environment to survive like out in the real world, but contrary to this, it is a place where one becomes themselves by being in a wonderfully unique and supportive environment that encourages the burgeoning of both a person’s spirit and identity.
In an interview with “Circus Olympus” director and one of Chaffey College’s theatre art professors, Christa El-Said, I got some insight about what she believes makes theatre so great. In her first experience with theatre, El-Said was in first grade and participated in a competition called “Oral Interpretation”, in which her school district would go from classroom to classroom and choose the best speaking students to perform a poem out loud. El-Said was nominated by her teacher to perform and she wound up winning first place in her grade category. She continued participating in this competition each year and eventually began performing in her school’s plays, “I just felt at home, I felt like this is so much fun — it just spoke to me,” recalled El-Said.
Learning about history and other cultures is also a way to understand how identities are formed, “I have learned so much history just being in productions in musical theatre,” says El-Said. In a response to how theatre has made her more culturally aware, the first two plays that El-Said recalled were “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Raisin in the Sun”. The former is a very popular play about a Jewish family, which introduces audiences to Jewish music and dance; and the latter is about a black family living in the Southside of Chicago during the 1950s, a time where there was a lot of racism and segregation.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is also one of the first plays on Broadway with a Black female playwright and is one of El-Said’s favorites, that has taught her about the lives of other cultures; different from her own White Protestant upbringing. El-Said understands what her own social identity entails for her out in the world and believes that there are still inequalities today,
“It gives me an insight and empathy for the Black culture, especially during that time period and it also makes me recognize the privilege that I have being a white person in society with an education, it has allowed me more opportunities than some other cultures,” said El-Said.
In knowing and developing our identity, we try new things and naturally pursue what we regard as valuable. In wanting to know her personality more, I asked El-Said what kinds of artistic risks she had taken in directing and creating plays and she told me about her identity as an actress versus her identity as a director. She explained to me how people in the community know her as an educator and she teaches students, many of them being new to the theatre world, so her job is to teach people the fundamentals of theatre and not to experiment. As a result, she has felt a little inhibited to be able to do anything outside of the box,
“As an actress, now that I’ve been teaching and directing so long, I don’t feel like I can personally take as many risks as an actress because of my persona as a professor,” acknowledged El-Said.
On the other hand, as a director she has had a bit of freedom in taking some artistic risks here at Chaffey College, recounting her experience in directing “The Full Monty”.
“The Full Monty” was a movie before it became a musical, about 6 guys who are out of work and come up with the idea to make money for one night as Chip n’ Dale dancers, but they must go “the full Monty,” otherwise known as completely nude. Not surprisingly, this is a rated-R show because of nudity, strong language, and adult subject matter, so it was a pretty big risk to take at Chaffey, but it was done. El-Said tells me that it is a beautiful story; being a well-known play where audience’s witness the struggles of 6 loveable misfits, that by the final scene, “You’re rooting for them, you want them to take that G-string off at the end and they did,” says El-Said as I let out a small laugh and a gasp of surprise discovering that this was done at Chaffey. Of course, “it was all theatrically backlighted, so you don’t see them from the front, you just see their silhouettes and their shadows — but you know they’re standing there fully nude,” El-Said said reassuringly. She likes doing rated-R type shows because she believes they hold some value, “I think that’s true to life and there should be no reason to be scared of that,” said El-Said.
I also asked her about any plays or stories that had changed her perspective, such as having her, “moral compass shaken in some way,” as I phrased it to her. She spared a few moments trying to think of anything, but instead she spoke of how LGBTQIA issues were something that she had started becoming more aware of through theatre and her students, which had opened her mind up more than before,
“I think the world’s really changing and we’re seeing that transfer over in theatre too — like gender roles are shifting, how I use to cast things very specifically, like this is a male character, this is a female character, now there’s a lot of variations on this spectrum,” said El-Said.
In this regard, I had also asked her if she had observed any emotional or social changes in her students.
El-Said explains how she has had students be in the middle of transitioning from male to female or female to male, “Mid-semester we may start calling them Jack, by the end of the semester they are Jaclyn.” She emphasizes herself being more open to this kind of change; she thinks that theatre and the performing arts are about inclusiveness, and that the world likes to exclude people and put them outside the box, but not in theatre. She likens students finding their identity to artists finding their voice,
“Seeing our students trying to find their identity and be their authentic true self, I think is a really similar quest to a performing artist or just an artist — like what is your voice, who is the true you.”
I also got the opportunity to interview some of the cast of “Circus Olympus”: Marc Anthony Perez, Joseph Rubio, Ryan Mensen, and Kaitlynd Gouldby, to hear their thoughts on what they feel about theatre. Marc Anthony Perez is in his first semester at Chaffey and he is a Political Science major — he played Merve, one of the narrators in the play. He believes that theatre is a great way to express yourself and not hold in your feelings, as is often the case, either because we are afraid to let them out or socially told not to. The first play he performed in was the ever so popular, “Fiddler on the Roof”, which he described as being a life altering experience,
“Getting to do the two things I love to do most, which is to sing and be alive, yeah, it’s pretty much what theatre is, being alive in front of people,” said Perez contently.
Theatre is something that makes him visibly elated and he likes the fact that it engages everything about one’s self, and that when stepping into a different character, you get to touch upon a side of yourself that you may have not been aware of. When performing live on stage he said it feels, “Positively insane, it’s exhilarating,” and ever since becoming involved in the world of theatre, he believes it has changed him. He feels more confident talking to people, not just in feeling, but also ability wise, he feels he has improved,
“I feel better about being myself without any fear of reprisal or being pushed away — because if you can act crazy — like a ringleader,” he laughs, “In front of people for an hour, or you can be Macbeth or you can be Hamilton in front of people for two and a half hours, you can do anything, there is no social encounter that is going to scare you after that.”
Joseph Rubio also expressed similar feelings, he played Helios, Pemphredo, and a townsperson in the play.
Before theatre Rubio said he was the shyest person ever and was very standoffish when it came to talking to other people, but he gradually opened himself the more he became involved, and he completely enjoys the experience of performing for a crowd because it is a feeling unlike any other, “As an actor, that’s kinda like your thing, to jump into things and try to thrive instead of just break away from people.” Ryan Mensen, who played Echo I, Polydectes, and a townsperson in the play, never really understood theatre until he started to become involved in it, he had thought it to be an activity that only old people participated in, such as going to the Opera, but he later realized it was more of a, “Young people thing,” as he phrased it.
Even though acting can be stressful, he thinks acting is easy and like the rest of the cast I was able to interview, he too believes that it is the one place where you can always be yourself, and he has changed because of it, “I’m more willing to help people, it sounds lame but it’s true,” said Mensen. He says this with the thought that theatre is all about working in a team with a collective goal. Performing is also definitely a challenge to prepare for, riled with nerves and anxiousness, but as Mensen says, “You just do it.” Then there’s Kaitlynd Gouldby, who played Osina, Athena, and was part of the ensemble; she also believes theatre to be a special place, “There’s just so much freedom for expression, that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.” “Circus Olympus” was actually her first time participating in a production, and she describes performing live as both thrilling and terrifying, but in a good way. Gouldby has also gained courage through being in such an encouraging environment, pushing her to the edge of her comfort limits, where she may or may not fall off, “It’s helped me accept that, yeah, I can do this,” she said with a tone of optimism.
Theatre can change you, give you precious moments, and make you feel alive. When I asked El-Said why she thinks it’s important to keep the arts alive she said, “I think it’s at the core of humanity, it’s your personality, it’s your passion, it’s your expression, if people don’t have that outlet, I think life would be ultimately boring — I think we would die,” I laugh a little at her abruptness, “I think our spirit would die, you have to have something to look forward to, something to get out, something to express, a way to connect with people.”