Theatre in Marin unites community amid new age of technology

To open social media today is to be constantly inundated with the whole spectrum of the human experience: the joy of a college acceptance, the pain of a breakup, the humor of a meme. All emotions, it seems, are accessible at all times. This, then, renders live theatre — a performance with no filters, no presumptions and no editing — uniquely valuable today, according to drama teacher and actress Elena Wright.

“We do a lot of our story absorbing from our phones, or from our small groups of friends, or our family at home, and we don’t get in a room full of strangers, and turn out the lights and tell a story together,” Wright said. “That is one of the most ancient things that human beings do. We get together and we try to make meaning out of the things that happened to us.”

Drama student and sophomore Syd Walling, who has been involved with many local productions, said that theatre has provided her with a space to be herself unlike any other.

“[If] you do a play, you’re going to be vulnerable. And people are going to laugh, or not. They’ll have a reaction, or not. And you can’t control it. You just have to do it, and be yourself and let go of your desire to have a result,” Walling said. “You’re offering the part of yourself to the audience, you’re saying, ‘This is a story that I’ve worked on that I want to tell you,’ and you’re giving them the chance to react to it.”

It is not only the manufacturing of emotions but the manufacturing of all content that has become an essential part of modern-day media, with only the most polished and finalized versions of productions making it to our screens. Performing, for Walling, is especially powerful under this interpretation.

“There’s a rawness to it… There’s a beauty to mistakes that are made on stage, to watching somebody who’s worked really hard. That’s a person who’s working through something as a person, who is improving or persevering,” Walling said. “It’s much more interactive than movies are. You’re watching people who are actively immersed in a story, and you’re watching who they’re playing, but [you’re also watching] who they are.”

For Wilhelmina Frankfurt, the Artistic Director at San Anselmo’s Stapleton School of the Performing Arts, theatre fosters connections that cannot be accurately depicted virtually, as she observed with the school’s recent production of “Seussical.”

Standing in front of her students, Artistic Director at Stapleton School, Wilhelmina Frankfurt, teaches her students how to perform a variation during a summer intensive. (Photo courtesy of Wilhelmina Frankfurt)

“When you are face to face with someone in a room, the whole dynamic changes,” Frankfurt said. “Whatever happens in live performance happens… I ultimately feel like human beings need human beings. When something really goes wrong, your screen can’t reach out and touch you, and help you. But your friend can hold you if you’re sad, or laugh with you when something’s funny.”

Participating in theatre can present a myriad of benefits, such as heightened empathy, emotional regulation, writing skills and reading comprehension, according to studies by the American Psychological Association, Boston College and the University of Illinois. Beyond mere statistics, however, drama at Redwood and throughout Marin has provided a source of community for those involved.

“It’s hard, as people and especially as teenagers, to find a safe space [and] to feel like you’re [not going] to be judged,” Walling said. “More than any other place, I think I found that with drama.”

Wright has noticed similar benefits among her own students; at Redwood and beyond, theatre has become a form of community unlike any other.

“Ever since the pandemic, I feel even more that theatre is life saving for young people. For people who feel alone, for people who have anxiety and for people who feel like they have attention problems, theatre is a solution to all of those things,” Wright said.

For Leo Beare, a sophomore at Novato High School who played the role of a Wickersham Brother in Stapleton School’s recent production of “Seussical,” theatre helped him develop his confidence and feel more comfortable in front of an audience. 

Performing under the stage lights, Stapleton School of the Performing Arts puts on their production of “Seussical.” (Photo courtesy of Wilhelmina Frankfurt)

“If you ever want to try theatre, I’d say go for it. It’s an experience that is really fun and will brighten your day,” Beare said. “You can impact the viewers in the audience. If it’s your first time seeing a musical theatre show, you might discover something that you haven’t discovered before, [whether you’re] entranced by the actors, the storyline or from being there in that moment.”

Beyond those acting on the stage, theatre involves far more than just the cast. For shows at Redwood and Stapleton alike, the efforts of lighting, directors and artists are all essential in creatinga finished product.

“No matter what part of that team you are, you are an important cog in the wheel. Because without someone that lights the show, it would be very drab. Without the person that does the audio, where they turn on everybody’s microphones individually, you wouldn’t be able to hear anyone,” Frankfurt said. “Without the person that does the set design, and creates the world in which the show takes place, it would be very boring to look at.”

For Walling and Wright alike, theatre is, at its core, an educational experience for both the actors and the audience alike. Even as the stories told through theatre range from the mundane to the extraneous, empathy is fundamental to the task.

“To be able to watch people do what people do every single day is to remind ourselves of the kind of world we live in,” Walling said. “It shows people that the unfamiliar doesn’t have to stay unfamiliar.”

Wright expressed a similar sentiment.

“For those people who might have trouble putting themselves out there, theatre is this great training for being alive,” Wright said. “All of the arts show us that there could be another way for your life to unravel.”