What do you say, dearie? Would you like to take part in the play?
As I write this, I’m coming down from a twelve-hour day spent at Forum Theatre. It’s the day before we open and the cast performed back-to-back previews of the 3 hour and 45 minute Passion Play
It was intense and beautiful and I came out feeling more energized then when I arrived.
Tomorrow night the show opens—the culmination of six weeks of rehearsals. Long hours spent in windowless rooms hammering out inflection and movement and tracking the motivations of fictional people.
In Act 3 of the play, the question is asked: "Why would anyone want to do this for a living? Theatre?"
I can’t answer for our actors, but I can answer for myself.
I sometimes explain to friends that while most people have the same coworkers for years at a time, I cycle through new ones once every couple months. Each new show brings a new set of people to work with.
Except I don’t think of them as coworkers. I think of them as community. Sometimes I even think of them as family. There is something wonderful about being in that room with a group of people, all striving to make sense of the question that is a script, everyone trying to make the best art we can.
If nothing else in life seems clear, at least in that room we have a shared passion, a shared goal, and other people who will help us reach it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
And that fact has helped me appreciate even more deeply the central conflict of this play—a conflict that is not limited by the confines of the stage, but echoes out far and deep.
I haven’t a part. A part in the play. I would so love to be in the play.
Throughout the course of Passion Play, characters struggle with it again and again: What it means to not have a part in the play. The characters are talking about the Passion—their community’s reenactment of the suffering of Christ. But our play is talking about something more.
They aren’t just looking for a part in the play. They’re looking for a part in the community, in their family, in their society, in a chaotic, cold, and harsh world. We see it again and again as the story unfolds: what it means to not have a part. To have thoughts and desires and needs that put you apart from everyone else.
That keep you from being a member of that tight-knit ensemble. Sometimes it means you’re forced to hide your true self. Sometimes that self can’t be hidden.
If an actor doesn’t get a part in a play, they can move on. Audition for something else. There are other parts in other plays.
But on this grander stage, that is rarely possible. Not having a part means never being comfortable, never fitting in, not having that community, that family. It means always being on the outside looking in.
There is safety in having a role, in having lines that you know to speak, in knowing that others will respond with familiar lines of their own. There is safety and comfort and joy in it. Why wouldn’t you want a part?
I don’t want to be in the play anymore.
The Passion is a story. Whether you take it as gospel or metaphor—as historical fact or pure fiction—it’s a story. It is shaped by what we decide to add, what we take away, what we emphasize, who we cast as the hero, and who we label the villain.
And as Sarah Ruhl’s play demonstrates, family is a story, too. So is community. So is religion. So is society.
They aren’t immutable. They are what we make them. We share in the creation of a narrative—a story that tells us what these things mean, who is included in the tale, and who isn’t.
We might recognize that these constructs—these shared stories—are flawed. We might want deeply in our hearts to revise them, to make them better, more equitable But when a story is told so many times by so many people, it can be very hard to change.
You can’t do that, it’s a sin against God.
You are not one of us, because you don’t have the same blood.
It is sweet and right to die for your country.
In order to change the story, it requires people to refuse to play the roles they’re given. They have to do this knowing that they’re forsaking the safety and comfort of that space—that rehearsal room, that stage, that family, that society, that church—filled with likeminded loved ones. They have to stand up and declare, “This story is wrong and I will not take part in it anymore.”
In our Passion Play, it takes four centuries to get to this point—where one man is brave enough and tormented enough to refuse to play his part. I honestly don’t know if this is an exaggeration or a simplification of how difficult that revolutionary act is.
Either way, I believe strongly in the play’s final wish for its audience—wide-eyed clarity. The clarity to see the world for the shared story it is, to see the role your playing and the costume you’ve been handed, to see how you taking a part in the play may be leaving others out in the cold.
The clarity to see what is wrong with the play and the energy to try and change it.
Stephen Spotswood is a DC-based playwright, educator, and journalist. He received his MFA in Playwriting from Catholic University in 2009. Produced works include: In The Forest, She Grew Fangs (Washington Rogues); We Tiresias (Best Drama, Capital Fringe Festival 2012); When the Stars Go Out (Bright Alchemy Theatre); Sisters of Ellery Hollow (Capital Fringe 2011); The Resurrectionist King (Active Cultures Theatre); Off A Broken Road (Imagination Stage); and A Cre@tion Story for Naomi (Bright Alchemy). He is an artistic associate with Pinky Swear Productions, a frequent dramaturg at Theater J, and a member of Forum Theatre's artist ensemble. You can follow him and his ongoing work at www.playwrightsteve.com and on Twitter at @playwrightsteve.