What Can Theatre Tell Us about Humanity Today? Five Artistic Directors Share Their Views

Amy Oestreicher, TEDx speaker & playwright, interviews artistic directors Rick Dildine, Christopher Ashley, Blake Robison, Jim Petosa, and Anne Hamburger for their insights on theatre’s role in society today. “Welcome to the greatest adventure of your life!”

That’s how I began my second TEDx Talk this year. And it’s basically a talk about healing from trauma through story. Many stories, but really, just one.

Think about some of the greatest stories you’ve heard – maybe it’s a Star Wars movie, perhaps a Harry Potter book, or a chapter in the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology. Think about the patterns you observe around you every day. And think about how those patterns we experience, and the stories we hear guide us every day – whether we know it or not.

Rick Dildine, artistic and executive director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, who will soon join Alabama Shakespeare Festival as Artistic Director, shared the power he finds in storytelling through theatre.

“I make theatre to ask, ‘What is my purpose here? Why am I in this world? It’s an opportunity to get closer to that truth.’”

So what are some of the first questions he asks when approaching a play?

“What is the truth of this story? What do I know about this from my own experience? What is universal?”

It’s that universal story that theatre tells so well – a story of the hero’s journey – and a story that saved my own life.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the archetypal hero’s journey as an adventure we all undertake in our lifetime.

In Campbell’s words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

My second TEDx Talk was all about heroes, stories and the two best places to find them: in theatre, and in ourselves.

Storytelling, since the beginning of time, has driven change, created movements, and empowered those who never knew they had a story to tell. As an artist, creating stories is my way to uncover the certainty and significance from chaos and unsteadiness.

After surviving a decade of trauma, I discovered this storytelling “survival strategy” as a lifeline, roadmap and anchor to myself. To cope with 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I locked myself in my room and journaled thousands of pages, using Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey to create a structure for my life that had lost all structure entirely. Not only did stories help my own personal transformation, they helped me reintegrate into society once I myself had transformed.

And the power of one story – one universal narrative is not only what guided me through trauma, but what is producing theatre that is changing lives from coast to coast…and beyond.

Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse, and director of Broadway’s Come From Away, discovered how a story all the way in Newfoundland could resonate with New Yorkers.

How did he first get attracted to this story?

“I was in New York during 9/11 and had all of these strong, unresolved feelings at that time, and my associate director at La Jolla came to my office and said, ‘There’s a script you have to read, and I think it’s really gonna matter to you.’ There was something immediate about the script that struck me – something about that moment of kindness and generosity that felt like a necessary story to tell at this exact moment. We are living in a moment of such division and friction between people.

The stories of Newfoundland of that week, where people were so stranded, and how thoroughly people took care of them. There were different religions, backgrounds, and nothing else mattered, except that this person was hungry, and this person needed protection. There was generosity, compassion, it felt very much about community, and very much like how New Yorkers took care of each other at that time. The “New York” edge was off, and it was about humanity.”

Dildine finds the humanity of a story through family. “I’ve always loved intimate family dramas. What does it mean to be a human? A true moment of humanity for me, is where the prince has to sit through his father’s death in Henry the Fourth. To have a loved one pass on in our lives…that is something we all will inevitably experience.”


Through my own theatre-making, I’ve experienced how the simple act of telling my story made me part of the human race again – understood and empathized with. The “girl whose stomach exploded” now had a universally relatable tale of fighting through adversity. In my musical, Gutless and Grateful, I was protagonist and author of my own story. Creating theatre also created solutions, which could elevate anyone’s struggles to something heroic to triumph over.

Like a choose your own adventure novel, we have a choice in how we view our “call to adventure” and our “journey into darkness.” Jim Petosa, Artistic Director of New Repertory Theatre, has similar thoughts. “Life and trauma go hand in hand. Like all things, there are matters of degree. But intensely challenging experiences in life can be either paralytic or catalytic. I believe, for the artist, that it is essential to take on what is traumatic in our life and use it to fuel our work whenever possible. This is not stated as advocacy for art as therapy (a worthy field in its own right), but as a time-honored call for resilience in the making of art that is the result of authentic experience.”

Perhaps that’s why I never felt like a victim, even after years of being a medical guinea pig in two dozen hospitals, and the theatre I created from trauma, is a celebration of life’s beautiful detours, rather than a Greek Tragedy.

“Crises can bring out the best and the worst in people. In the case of our story, it really brought out the best,” Ashley tells me. “[Come From Away] at its core, is about people behaving beautifully at a moment of crises.”

“Theater is more vital together, to gather and commune. There’s no substitute for that shared experience.” says Blake Robison, Artistic Director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

So what is the role of theatre today? What can it offer to society?

“Theatre is about a group of artists getting together, and telling stories because we want to tell future generations who we were, who we are, and the legacy we want to pass on. The role of an artistic director is to listen to a community – to see where it’s down and out, where it needs to be educated, and what their stories are,” says Dildine.

And Christopher Ashley shares, “At every stage of Come From Away, something has been happening in our world, where our show has been a lens for people, to look through and make it more pertinent in their own realities.”

I asked Mr. Ashley, “How do you feel that resilience can be cultivated or learning through story? There is some inherent quality of that in all people, but what do you think theatre does to excavate it, discover it, and bring it to light in humanity?”

“That’s a great question – a big question,” he responded.

I do think theater is a beautiful way to talk about these questions, because the very act of seeing a play and being part of an audience to see a show is being part of a community. I believe the answer is finding the commonalities and find the things that bring us together rather than separate us. Theatre is uniquely qualified to help us find those answers – to find what we stand for.”

Anne Hamburger is Founder and Executive Producer of En Garde Arts, “bringing people together not normally in conversation and providing opportunities to reach the uninitiated.”

She shared with me what drew her to theatre. “I started realizing that​ I was meant to be in theatre as an artistic force, a creator. I’m drawn to stories where people have an iconographic point of view. I’m interested in a ​much more general audience, where communities can meet across a spectrum. How do we reach outside ourselves? How do we reach even outside our communities? How do we spread the message we’re trying to impart in a way that we all feel we can contribute to?​”

What’s the biggest trait of a hero, a storyteller, or a “Detourist?” Curiosity.

Says Hamburger, “I have an endless curiosity for places and things I’m unfamiliar with, and a desire to s​tep out of my comfort zone, to uncover everything possible, and to learn everything I can. Life is a continual set of discoveries. We never get old if we’re constantly curious to discover, uncover truths and to bring these to light.”

Dildine is discovering these truths from a local level. “Storytelling has always been local. I want theatre to serve as a depository for local stories, poems, hopes, and dreams – for how we want to be remembered.”

And in the local stories all around us, we discover the hero in one another, and in ourselves.

“A documentary film producer, David Hamlin once told me that a true documentarian allows the work to evolve out of stories they discover. That’s the process I’m most interested in,” Hamburger reflects. Her multimedia work, BASETRACK LIVE, explores the impact of war on veterans and their families. “The play is set, but the conversations after the play have been extraordinary, where we’ll have veterans stand up, crying, saying, T​his is my story!”​

Ashley reflected on the hero’s journey. “That movement from crisis to community and then back into the world – a lot of people bring their different stories to connect it to a personal journey in their own lives. But there is something about the way we are doing Come From Away – talking directly to the audience as the other character in the show, having a conversation. It makes us all ask, “What does it take to be the hero in our own journey?”

Speaking with Dildine, Ashley, Robison, Petosa, and Hamburger – creators from range of backgrounds, experiences, and aesthetic preferences, it became clear what theatre’s role is in our world today.

We cannot only read, watch or hear stories, but actually experience them, to access the heroes inside and around us.

Trauma taught me this important lesson the hard way, but with theatre, maybe all it takes is seeing a show.

Waking up from a coma at 18 years old, having just been sexually abused, and shook by the doctor’s subsequent disclosure that my insides had completely ruptured, I learned that resilience comes from the hope that as artists, we must create ourselves, out of these dismembered parts of our lives – or intestines, in my case.

Through transforming the aftermath of trauma into art, we create our own unique masterpiece, cultivating a bold, new identity that is uniquely ours…yet, this transformation draws us together in a universal narrative.

Theatre brings a commonality to all of our “life detours.” We’re not alone.

And we never have been alone. Just see a show to believe it.

Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author of My Beautiful Detour, global speaker, survivor, award-winning actress, contributor to over 70 publications, and playwright. She is currently touring Gutless & Grateful, and developing FIBERS, a play to honor her family’s survival through WWII and immigration to New York. Download a free e-book with TEDx Tips at www.amyoes.com/discover.

About the Author
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. As the creator of "Gutless & Grateful," her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she's toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. Her original, full-length drama, Imprints, premiered at the NYC Producer's Club in May 2016, exploring how trauma affects the family as well as the individual. To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others cope in the face of unexpected events. "Detourism" is also the subject of her TEDx and upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she's spoken to hundreds of healthcare professionals at national WOCN conferences, and her presentations on diversity, leadership and trauma have been featured at National Mental Health America Conference, New England Educational Opportunity Association's 40 Anniversary Conference, and have been keynotes at the Pacific Rim Conference of Diversity and Disability in Hawaii, the Eating Recovery Foundation First Annual Benefit in Colorado. She's contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC's TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. Learn more: amyoes.com and support her work at patreon.com/amyo. Amy is currently participating as a playwright and performance artist in the National Musical Theatre Institute at the world-renowned Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
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