General 1-4-2004

The Column: Ethics and Spirituality in the Theater, Part 1

Dean Seal's column this month is on Jack Rueling of Mixed Blood Theater, and is the first of three pieces based on the lecture series "Ethics and Spirituality in the Theater."

Dean Seal

This series came out of my assignment as an intern at Grace-Trinity
Church. The church has a reputation as a theater-friendly place, because it has
many theater-goers in its congregation and made a point of renting cheap space
to theater companies. My intention was to heighten that reputation, and also to
look at ways in which the theater community and the church community could
learn to recognize their various commonalities. But it goes deeper.

Some of the best theater work brings out questions of ethics in real life
situations. Some of it can deal with spiritual matters in a nonreligiously
specific manner. And both the Church community and the Theater community are in
one sense both altruistic non-profits; they are there to serve people, and
they get the bulk of their operating income from contributions. (There are rich
churches and hit shows, but we are not talking about them right now.)

We had Jack Rueler from Mixed Blood talk about his company, which is
dedicated to Dr. King; Jeannie Calvit from Interact talk about how a spiritual
approach to her actors, who all have physical or mental disabilities; and Joe
Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, talk about the deep spiritual
connection he felt between artist and audience in two examples from his past.

Jack Rueler turned out to be a great first choice. The Mixed Blood has been a landmark theater, and has had dozens of boundary-breaking productions. He’s done an amazing job of showing what can be done in the nonprofit world. My favorite was “The Boys Next Door,” a show about people with Down’s syndrome, cast with actors with Down’s syndrome, a first in the ten-year history of the play. It was a huge hit.

Jack professes that he is an atheist, but he’s dedicated his theater to Martin Luther King. I thought he’d have some ‘splainin to do. Excerpts from his presentation follow:

There are 7 key values that I discovered that were really infused in me
when I was a kid by my two mentors – which are my father, and Dr. Martin
Luther King. I was taught to make each day between birth and death an important
one. And to do this actively…not just to know the difference between right
and wrong, but to try to right that which is wrong. Not to align oneself with
community via geographic, ethnic or profession, whatever, but to create
community. That loyalty was a virtue in the same league as honesty and integrity,
and, even as an Atheist – and it’s not that I don’t believe in God, it’s that
I actively believe there is no God. It’s not enough to expect change; it’s
important to affect change.

Lastly, my father had a recurring mantra that’s really helped me: “Do
good, and disappear.” Go out and do things, don’t wait around to be thanked.
I knew that I wasn’t going to be a preacher or a politician. So theater
has been my voice. For me, good theater has four things: it’s a vehicle for
artistry, for entertainment, for education, and – of course – for trying to
affect change, positive change. And so in our 1887 firehouse, I’ve been able
to smuggle my dreams across the border of reality using the stage as my voice.
And, if the power is in access [to] information, we try to be a conduit of
that information.

There are two primary tenets, too, that we try to operate under: One –
we try to convene disparate bodies of people under one roof for a common
purpose. And the people like to see themselves onstage reflected in a positive
manner – we are not “Woe is me” theater. We are not up there whining, we are
actually portraying positive images.

Over time, I found that the things that motivate me to say what I try to
say through theater used to be much more in the realm of moral; now, it’s
become much more in the realm of ethical. I distinguish those [this way]: Moral as
“right versus wrong,” and ethical being various shades of right… “right
versus right.”

I’m going to tell you an example of that: “Sweet Nothing in My Ear” –
half the cast is deaf; the actors are deaf and the characters they play are
deaf, and half of them are not. There is a deaf mother and a hearing father
with a child that is born hearing, has lost his hearing, and has the opportunity
to have a cochlear implant. Which is a very divisive issue, both between
hearing and deaf communities, and within the world of the deaf. Here is a child
whose hearing father believes he can offer his child opportunities; and here is
a mother who believes this child is a deaf child, in a culture that has its
own tradition and language.

The play really meets all of these things we’re dealing with – right vs.
right. Both parents love their child, and are trying to do right by their
child. It’s a perfect show because it deals with multiple cultures, and
multiple languages.

I’ve had the great opportunity to work with Syl Jones in a program
called “EnterTraining.” We go into different workplaces, public and private,
and examine issues that will hopefully change attitude, policy, behaviors. An
example: The managed healthcare systems said, “We want to address violence
as a health care issue – not as a law enforcement issue. Now we have people
come in, we patch them up and send them out; they either perpetrate or become
victimized again…it’s a vicious circle and it costs a lot of money.” So Syl
and I conducted a bunch of focus groups of perpetrators, violence victims,
social workers, law enforcement officials. Syl says, “I got it – it’s a
country-western musical on the missed opportunities of the health care profession to
detect and prevent violence.” I thought it was the stupidest idea! That show
got done all over the country! It makes you realize why you have a career.
People changed their lives, having seen our show.

We nonprofits don’t imagine that by one little effort, we can change
things – but if we all work in tandem the works toward a common purpose, we
become that straw that breaks the camel’s back at any given time.

Mixed Blood will be ultimately successful when it’s no longer necessary.
I will come back to that idea of doing good, and disappearing…and I look forward to disappearing.