Backstage: Theater allows ‘crossing the great divide of otherness’

Jean Houston, Ph.D., scholar, philosopher, and psychologist, uses theater as a transformative tool in her teaching of “Social Artistry: Aligning the human spirit, potential, and action with the needs of the time.” This is the first part of a two-part interview. Part two will be published on Jan. 8.

EH: What theater’s mission?

JH: Theater has always been the seeding ground for both the reflection of a society and the emergence of a new order of society. Today, there is the need for this huge shake-up. The emergence through emergency hasn’t quite taken place, but it is happening everywhere.

The mission of theater is to reflect the state of being as it is, as it was, and as it yet can be — in a dramatic way, a way in which we see ourselves, played on the stage of the world. We can then take that play back into our own time, or reflect deeply on it. It makes our conscience rise in ways that motion pictures do not do, to the same extent, because you need living beings, you need living presences to really activate conscience. It causes us to dream again, to envision the higher dream. T.S. Eliot said, “Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream .…” I think it also incites us to the higher dream.

EH: What is the essence of a great actor?

JH: Greatness has so many different keys and colors, doesn’t it? It’s a kind of truth. I think, with the great human beings, if they have high craft, if they have deep soulful reflections, and often some kind of spiritual sourcing, you would really see the difference.

When I study human development, I try to help people think in many ways: Think in images; think in words; think with their whole body; think with their intuition — incarnate ideas. Ideas are not simply there to be run through an analytical posture. Ideas are there to be tasted, and smelled, and ground between the teeth. They are there to be incarnated.

And then, when the full person is out there playing the full part — whether it is something that you are writing, or creating, or dreaming, or playing — then it is embodied. It is a full body creation. And I think that’s what you have at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and all the other theaters around.

This is a theater town. You have people who are striving to push the edges of possibility — getting beyond the membrane between here and another there — crossing the great divide of otherness. And that is what theater does.

One of the reasons I live here is to have ensemble players working together. They share the essence of their striving; they share their art in an ongoing learning situation. They become myriad-minded, like Shakespeare, thinking and being in many ways. Theater requires multi-form knowing.

When I sit under the stars at the Elizabethan Theater, with all those people watching — especially a Shakespearean play — even though the language may be strange, there’s some kind of coherence in the audience that is affected by what’s happening on the stage. We go beyond the difficulties of the language, and we become a coherent force, a presence. And there’s a kind of bliss; there’s a kind of ecstasy to it all. And you see everybody getting up and applauding and shouting. It’s glorious. They have been lifted beyond their local selves into some kind of magical being. It happens when an audience becomes coherent in its own ecstasy. I see that here all the time. That’s transformation, really.

To find out about Jean Houston’s upcoming programs visit, email or call 541-488-1200.

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