Thursday, March 9, 2006

Absolute Dreamers

My first acting teacher used to say “There are no absolutes in theatre,” (which in itself is an absolute…). What he meant was that in performance and interpretation there was nothing that could not be considered when forming the character or staging the work and conveying the message of the work: anything goes. He encouraged us to try anything to bring the character to life, even if it seemed completely wrong or outrageous because in the process of exploration we would inevitably discover something that would connect ourselves with the character and it would translate into an effective method of truthfully portraying the intent of the playwright. Of course that didn’t mean that it would necessarily work on stage — this was about the rehearsal process — and there were times when the method didn’t produce the desired results. But the point was that you had to keep an open mind and allow yourself to be challenged by trying anything in order to find what worked. The only caveat he put on it was that it had to be about the role and the vision of the production. If it didn’t contribute to that, it was deemed as selfish and dishonest, and thereby, he noted with a touch of irony, it stopped being theatre and became purely an exercise in self-gratification and that wasn’t what the art was about.

I remember vividly the fear of stepping on stage in that freshman acting class and taking the risk of performing, even if there were, as my teacher said, “no absolutes.” It’s much easier to follow rote direction and do exactly what someone else tells you to do. But it’s a betrayal of the one thing that makes us unique: the ability to reason, to think, to listen to others, and to go beyond the limits of perception. In other words, to dream and to act.

That memory of those first acting classes came back when I read this op-ed piece by Richard Cohen. While Mr. Cohen talks about the culture of intellectual corruption that has emerged from the present administration — giving over to religion and absolutist thought such important scientific areas as stem cell research and “the culture of life” — it seems that the only reason that the president and the neoconservatives have driven this country and the world down certain roads is not because it is good for everybody — the evidence is overwhelmingly against it — but merely to achieve some goals that benefits only themselves and a few others and disregards the lives and fortunes of many others.

The war in Iraq was not about removing an imminent threat to our citizens and our security. It was about picking on a buffoon with a big mouth who had, at one time, put out a contract on the first President Bush. That was a terrible thing to do, but it doesn’t justify the overthrow of a sovereign nation and the sacrifice of the lives of over 2,000 American soldiers. The excuses used to justify the war — WMD’s, collusion with al-Qaeda, sabre-rattling against other countries — are even worse because they are all good reasons to be armed against other countries such as North Korea and Iran, who really do pose a threat to us and their neighbors. Today North Korea is shooting off missiles and Iran is threatening “pain and harm” to the US and proposing the eradication of Israel, yet all they get is “concern” from the White House. These bad guys can shoot off their mouths — and their armaments — because they have seen the American foreign policy wasted on a fool’s errand in Iraq. All because the president and his counselors refused to listen to ideas and reason that was not of their own making or didn’t fall into their narrow vision of their mission. It’s not about doing what’s best for the country — it’s all about promoting their own agenda.

The same is true of their view of the so-called “culture of life.” The country that once led the world in the exploration of science and had an education system that was the envy of the world has been hijacked by mythology and superstition. The idea that we would even consider teaching creation fables on the same level as proven science makes a mockery of the last four hundred years of enlightenment. That a political movement that trumpets the virtue of smaller government and rugged individualism should criminalize the most intimate decision a woman can make or who can get married to whom and base it on absolutist theology is a giant leap backward to the time when women were seen as mere possessions and marriage was about property. It is a complete betrayal of their so-called principles of freedom from the totalitarian reach of “big guvamint.” It isn’t about freedom or even life; it’s about controlling others and, again, promoting their own agenda.

Liberals have long been derided as a disparate collection of idealists, dreamers, and squabblers; intellectuals who stand for everything and therefore stand for nothing. It’s a cute aphorism, but in reality it was the willingness to listen to hundreds of contrary ideas that formed a nation out of a ragtag collection of rebels, anti-government agitators, and religious fanatics who were united by the common goal of finding a way to make an experiment in liberal democracy flourish against a world of absolutes. It’s messy, it’s clumsy, it’s scary, but it works.