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find: Theatre U.S.A.

Colin Taylor,

  theatre, U.S.A.

The museum in Rochester, NY, where I grew up, had a children's theater program which presented plays about cultures and customs all around the world. I belonged to that theater group for years, doing once-a-month performances and rehearsing after school and on Saturdays. I don't remember much of that, but it must have influenced greatly my curiosity about people from other places and other cultures, because I have always been attracted to people who see the world differently than I do.

Although I did character roles in several high school plays, I never took acting lessons, except for the grade-school museum group. I read avidly, though, and I remember Michael Chekhov's acting technique as an early influence. His books inspired me, and became my tutorials. I thought his emphasis on "psychological gesture" and expressive movement made more sense than Stanislavski's absorption (preoccupation) with the self. Even early on, I thought acting and theater were more a place for communication, a safe place to explore ideas together, than a venue for showing off or for psychological self-exploration in public. An empathic link and mutual recognition of our elemental humanness and reverberating cultural roots is what makes theater performance thrilling for me...

The University of Rochester, where I did my undergraduate work and masters degree, had little to offer in theater. I tried out for Lysistrata in my freshman year, but the director was so stultified by her emphasis on a pedantic reader's-theater approach that I quickly got away from that. If acting or speech classes were available, I was unaware of them. I did do some renegade theater with friends. Four of us got together a performance of Sartre's No Exit. That show went well enough that I was accepted as a novice in the alternative theater group on campus. We did mostly avant-garde French plays: Genet, Beckett, that sort of thing. We were all very sincere. Several of the guys in that group went into professional theater, but I didn't see that as a particularly promising field-so many actors are so often unemployed...

I took Shakespeare, mostly because I knew I would need that if I wanted to become an English major. I fell in love with learning, and with Shakespeare. Wilbur Dunkel, my professor, entranced me by emphasizing the dramaturgy in Shakespeare's early plays. He showed me how to take a scene apart, to look with a writer's eye and a linguist's appreciation at the early, struggling playwright.
Then R.J. Kaufman, another giant in my academic life, took over during the second semester, putting Shakespeare's major works into a historical context. I admired his eidetic memory, his critical insight, his sense of language and poetry, and his tolerance of my brash certainty, my harsh negativism. He personified for me what a teacher could be, by fostering the potential in his students, and what a person could be, by accomplishing a meaningful, productive life.

I went from the University of Rochester to teaching high school English in a small country school in upstate New York, and from there to three years at the Harley School, a fine private country day school. I had been bitten by the theater bug, though, and as soon as I completed my master's degree at the University of Rochester I made my way to the University of Colorado, where I could teach English as a graduate associate instructor, pursue a degree in the Communication and Theater Department and participate in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival...

My approach to theater has changed since I have been a Bahá´í. Rather than trying to shock people into awareness in a rebellious way, I have now gentled considerably. I see theater as a focused team effort to bring an audience together in unity, a safe place to explore our capacity for empathy, to see into emotions expressed in behaviors, and to recognize our collective potential. Theater is one way to hold our souls to the light, to be touched, and to share. The most effective teaching I have experienced has been around the theater. In the intense effort of shared commitment, one's character becomes an attractant (or a repellant)...

Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, March 1999, pages 5 - 7

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