“Your life is meaningless, my life is meaningless, and the only thing that gives any meaning, that brings any hope to this life, is my unshakeable belief that God will come again in glory to replace this disgusting life with something new, and pure, and meaningful.” – Will
To me, the overarching theme of A Bright New Boise is the search for meaning in one’s life—validating that one’s thoughts and actions contribute to a greater good. As the play’s five characters pursue five distinct paths to meaning, we inherently identify with that universal quest—even if our definition does not include the divine annihilation of the world.
This theme, and Will’s journey, resonates particularly closely to me: my father entered the Catholic seminary because he wanted to help people improve their lives. The best way to do this, he thought, would be to guide them spiritually, yet he quickly realized his vocation did not rest in the priesthood. He eventually became a lawyer and spent decades working for the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, where he aimed to improve communities’ quality of life through the organizations’ development projects.
I followed in my father’s footsteps by working at Ashoka and GlobalGiving, yet I also find myself on another career track: acting. When one works in the international development sector, it is relatively easy to answer “What am I doing for the greater good?” In the performing arts sector, it becomes trickier.
Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, recently shared his struggle with this very question: “As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching and finally to theater—not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theater, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind?” He then listed seven reasons why theater matters:
1) Theater does no harm.
2) Theater is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need—one might call it an instinct—to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor.
3) Theater brings people together.
4) Theater models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be.
5) The making of theater and attending of theater contribute to education and literacy.
6) Theater as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods.
7) Theater influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values and our behavior.
The fourth and seventh points underscore why I value theater and believe it to be a critical component of society, just as valuable as architecture, medicine, or the law. The plays that excite me most are, yes, ones that entertain but that also challenge the audience’s beliefs. Core beliefs –those that fundamentally shape people’s identities—share universal emotions and interpersonal relationships. Where political discourse constructs compromises through an intellectual understanding of separate parties’ positions, theater encourages sympathy through emotional connectedness. In this way, wouldn’t theater facilitate political discourse? As JR, a French street artist, said: “In some way, art can change the world. I mean, art is not supposed to change the world—to change practical things—but to change the perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world . . . Actually, the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions and then enables it to change the world” (21:39).
A Bright New Boise is one of those tremendous plays that entertains and challenges. Regardless of religion, you will laugh . . . a lot. Yet if you cast a sideward glance at fundamentalist Christians, you will second-guess whether to think of them as Will says as “bigots, fanatics, hicks and idiots and to mock and to insult their beliefs.” In fact, leaving the theater, you may sympathize with Will and want to explore why exactly people cling tightly to their religious beliefs. In a society in which people pray for the Rapture, atheism is growing, and politicians tout Islam as a trait of enemy countries, isn’t this important?
~ Felipe Cabezas, “Leroy” in A Bright New Boise