John G Bell
Communication Design
Spring '04 - Woolever

Personal Essay – Theatre as Dialogue

As the audience gathered before the show, I did something I never do and was unable to do again. It was opening night of The Company of Wayward Saints, an interpretation of the Italian Commedia Dell'Arte. Behind the curtain, on stage, bathed in the magic of the moment and a soothing ethereal blue light, I danced a waltz. Even without knowing how to dance and without having planned on dancing, it was perfect and wonderful. An actress and I danced to our own unheard music. After that night we could not recapture the moment. Tripping over each other in the dusky blue light was all we managed. We attempted to hold the experience, but failed. We decided that perhaps it was only meant to happen that once, and let go. From this I realize that each moment is a magical dance that can only ever happen once, but never again.

Each moment is a twist of thread that together weaves a masterful tapestry of events, people and something bigger than the parts of my life

The essence of theatre is grand and boisterous, but also sublime, subtle and ephemeral. My memories of theatre are contained in passing moments that will never return, yet each moment participates in a larger whole that has a continuous life. I may experience similar moments, perhaps even moments of striking similarity, but never the same moment again. Threads of finite length, moments in time, participate in a continuous fabric that means even more to me than the most magic moment means alone. Each moment is a twist of thread that together weaves a masterful tapestry of events, people and something bigger than the parts of my life. This tapestry is a rendition of my human experience, a representation of the interconnected, interdependent threads of life.

Theatre is an experience of ephemeral moments in a meaningful whole. In many ways, theatre is the wellspring of symbol, metaphor and visceral experience I have used to understand my own world. My personal involvement with the theatre prepared me for work in dialogue and systems. Theatre models dialogue, is a process of dialogue and is a way to learn dialogue. Theatre is an experience of wholes that are dynamic and greater than the sum of its parts. Theatre is the place where I developed skills and experience in fashioning tools, both subtle and profound, which have been essential to my personal experience of the world.

Theatre as Dialogue

When I create characters within productions, I see larger dynamics of truth that are not constrained by only my individual, limited notion of truth. The process of creating a character is a constant journey of crossing thresholds to meet opposites and resolve conflict in cathartic denouement. There are many truths that participate together in what is perceived as reality and at all levels reality is dynamic, changing. These truths are not relative, but rather are collective and coexisting. Creating a theatrical production is a collaborative fugue that constantly asks “What if?” and to each experience refuses to merely say emphatically, “Yes!” Theatrical collaboration is a process of constant development in which each affirmation is followed by a further amplification.

... an actor cannot possibly think alone

One of the hardest things for me as an actor is to realize that there is no character outside of the self, that isn't created from parts of one's self. That the only character on stage is my self can be very frightening. However, even when the self is on stage, the self is not at risk. The self is invested within the metaphors of the performance, but the performance is more than the self or the parts. Another difficult realization is that what I think I am doing on stage is not what is actually happening. I am in collaboration with a director, other actors and crew, and the audience who all provide feedback so that I can adjust. Interdependent collaboration means that it's not possible to be in character without feedback from others, and that means as an actor I cannot possibly think alone. The kind of intelligence displayed on stage is a collective. Collaboration is a lesson about interdependence.

Interdependence makes it clear that no one is expendable because the whole has characteristics that cannot be isolated to the individuals. Neither the world, nor the play, is all about me. Actors and staff all work together over an entire rehearsal process in ways that change each element of the production. The chance comment or the smallest joke made during the rehearsal process might change significant elements in a performance. Everyone is an essential part of the whole story. A favourite saying of my first director was, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”

As an actor off-stage, I know that a scene is about to begin and know what will happen as I make an entrance on cue, but the character does not

If there are no small parts, then even the antagonists are essential to the whole story. An important revelation I had is that antagonists do not see themselves as evil. To play an antagonist is to find out the internally consistent rational process for that character. There's reason and purpose behind every character's action on stage, even characters that are nominally voiceless have a purpose and a story. When building a character, I find out what information there is in the text of a play, and then create the undocumented remainder of my character's life. Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead shows what happens to the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakespeare's Hamlet when they are not on stage in Hamlet. Each actor creates the plot to their own private Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for themselves to complete their stories of the characters they play. When characters enter a scene, they were some place before, doing something. As an actor off-stage, I know that a scene is about to begin and know what will happen as I make an entrance on cue, but the character does not. Each scene is transitional space where characters change from what they were to what they will become. The life of the character extends beyond the moment of each scene and the internal consistency of the whole performance is not the whole story of each character. Scenes are snapshots of transition and transformation that communicate through metaphor. As an actor, I hold the off-stage life of my character in trust, with care, between scenes.

Playing multiple parts in the same play requires me to take special care of my characters. In a production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, I played several parts. I played Samson, one of Tybalt's gang. I also played a servant to the house of Capulet and the Chief Watch at the end of the play. Each of these three characters had complete lives I developed for them, but there was also a whole that provided perspective on the relationship between these characters. Samson was a roguish brute who had power without responsibility. The servant had responsibility but was without power. Finally, the Chief Watch had both power and responsibility. Creating these characters and finding the relationship between them, even though they were obviously never on stage together, helped me to bring each individually to life. By participation in the parts, I derived an experience of a whole.

There have been occasions when these unseen lives are too compelling to leave unlived. Off-stage, I have acted out scenes in my character's lives that no audience has witnessed. I have enacted entire scenes with other actors behind the set of a play where we are the only witnesses to important parts of the lives of our characters.

The theatrical process asks actors and audience to switch from a mode of thinking that asks how things are possible toward asking what if things are possible

These strong and compelling lives are not always easy to give up, nor so quick to make an exit once the play is over either. I have found myself behaving in new ways because of the way that the characters I've played have developed. I have also found that there is a period of separation from previous characters at the beginning of a new production. Sometimes a new character forms by an exploration of how that character is not like other characters I've played. These are all new ways of thinking, and they are balanced with, against and around each other. The process of developing these different ways of thinking is a way of learning that others have consistent and strong ways of experiencing the world that do not exclude others or my own.

Suspending my own ideas can be a necessary precursor to the development of a character. Suspension of disbelief is a way of behaving in the theatrical experience. The theatrical process asks actors and audience to switch from a mode of thinking that asks how things are possible toward asking what if things are possible. When an event happens, especially during improvisation, one must accept it and incorporate it. The process of improvisation is to constantly say, to each new event, “Yes, and ...” The surest way to kill an improvisational scene is for one of the actors to say, “No!” The life of theatre is a suspension of limits. This is a living brainstorm where ideas are people and the relationships between ideas becomes the action of a scene. If I do not allow myself to trust ideas that are new and different, then I cannot become a character without internal conflict. Unresolved internal conflict between an actor and the character can ruin a performance.

Participation in the theatre for me has been vocational training in conflict management. Not only is there a model of conflict and the enacting of conflict, but there is conflict during production and performance that is constantly in the process of being resolved. Sharing space and time with a small group of people for an intense activity creates a fertile field ripe for conflicts to arise. One response to the experience of how attitudes and behaviour affect others is to develop skills in what it means to be professional. During a rehearsals of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, I had the opportunity to take on the role of a dog. This is a role that is written in the play as a foil for some of comic interludes and is a great opportunity to clown on stage. I was already playing several roles, but the decision on whether this element of the play would be a real person pretending to be a dog, a stuffed dog on a leash, or something else, had not been made. During rehearsals, I volunteered to play in the scene as the dog and had so much fun that I spent the whole night thinking of things to do next rehearsal. I was investing time and energy into the development of the character and stage business. The next time the scene came around, another actor was asked to officially take on the role as the dog. I allowed myself to become very angry and unprofessional in response to this slight by the director. I grumbled under my breath the whole night. On the third day, I realized that my behaviour was inappropriate and damaging to the shared space of the production. I went to the director and, although he had not noticed my reaction, I apologized. The director had not realized how much I had invested in preparing the role, and had intended to offer the role to the other actor before I had taken it on in rehearsals. Being able to communicate with each other without resentment and finding out the context of events together are skills I learned during production and performance.

Without suspension of the self and disbelief, it would be virtually impossible to put anything on stage and I could not become a character.

Suspension of my ideas about the character allow the character to become something more than myself. There's a feeling of authenticity that comes from experience in the process of rehearsal and performance. There are time when I can feel but not explain why my delivery of a particular line or the way a scene unfolds is not quite right. Rehearsals provide a space for the exploration and elaboration on these feelings of authenticity.

Creative authenticity is what I love most of all about the theatre and the rehearsal process

Creative authenticity is what I love most of all about the theatre and the rehearsal process. The outcome and performance are exhilarating, but direct participation in the development of a production in rehearsal is a bringing forth of new life. The performance could never be as powerful without rehearsals, even though the rehearsals are even more ephemeral than when happens before an audience. Suspension of myself, participating in the ritual of transformation and connecting to collective authenticity of effort and emotion are all sublime experiences of myself as an individual in community with others.

Part of my experience on stage is being uncomfortable. My nervousness becomes the basis for performance, not something to avoid or suppress. This nervousness puts the self off balance and even more capable of the act. By suspending my own fear and expectation of what nervousness means, I transmute my nervousness into collective transformation.

Theatre as Systems Thinking

The performance of characters emerges from the collective effort and participation of everyone involved, including the audience. Every production, performance, scene and character is a visceral experience for me of something that is greater than each of the essential elements that participate. There are remarkable links between my experiences and Donella Meadows' “systems wisdoms.” I realize that being involved with theatre was preparation for systems thinking. Similar wisdom about patterns and relationships comes to me from participation in theatre as I am discovering in dialogue and systems thinking. I have profound and subtle personal experiences that enrich my intellectual exploration of systemic interdependence and interconnectedness.

One night, a production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor went suddenly, surprisingly wrong before the show began. I had the first entrance of the show, but due to the lighting and set design could not tell when the lights dimmed as my cue to enter. I had been relying on another actor backstage to signal me when the light cue arrived, but at the start of the show that actor was no where to be found. I missed my cue. I arrived on stage and the lights came up before I was in position. Trying to rescue the cue, I started to speak, but the lighting people tried to rescue the cue at that very moment by taking the lights back down. I made my way to my place, the lights came back up for the second time and I went on with the opening monologue. At first intermission, the director announced that the actor on whom I had been relying had fallen ill in the green room just before the start of the show. He had not been able to be there to help me with my cue and he would not be able to do his scene in the play. Luckily the play was a collection of vignettes, so we could skip a scene, but the ripples of that one person's difficulty was felt by everyone in the cast, and certainly changed the experience of the play for the audience.

The only way to keep these changes under control is to paradoxically accept that they are not controllable.

Big problems certainly have an effect, but seemingly tiny mistakes can also create complex changes in the way a production takes place. There was a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night where in the final scene of confessions one actor consistently forgot a single essential sentence in a paragraph long line that motivated my character to respond. Without that specific sentence, my character had no reason whatsoever to react and therefore could not. The loss of a single sentence made it impossible to justify a lengthy segment of the final scene. Little things are essentially connected to everything and everyone else. The only way to keep these changes under control is to paradoxically accept that they are not controllable. I respond to this paradox by having a feel for the whole of the production and then I am able to adjust lines and stage business around the variances that inevitably occur in each night of the run. Sometimes these adjustments are minor, like when another actor drops something on stage that has to be removed, or when I entered a scene I was not supposed to be in as the butler in Charley's Aunt to adjust the carpet on set that had become curled over. However, I have also been in productions where we had to improvise whole sections of dialogue in iambic pentameter to bridge over the tiniest of changes. I could not do that now if I tried, but in the moment with an awareness of the whole and with a visceral connection to the character and the production we managed the miraculous. When Meadows talks about getting the beat of a system, this is exactly the kind of whole awareness that I have seen, experienced and learned to be essential in the theatre.

... a conduit for some wisdom larger than myself, touched by the Muse of the Greeks, perhaps

When this experience of the whole is profound enough, something magical can happen. During full dress rehearsal of Michael Weller's Moonchildren I had such an experience of the whole coming together in the moment. On this particular night, my character came together and took over. I had a feeling of warmth and calm come over me and seemed to be outside of myself, floating above myself, timeless, watching the character I had become say lines in ways that I never had thought to deliver them. This was an experience of the character becoming more than just an act but something more like a living being richer and more robust than anything I had imagined. The character seemed to have more wisdom about how to speak than I could have provided on my own. It is difficult to talk about an experience like this without speaking of being a conduit for some wisdom larger than myself, touched by the Muse of the Greeks, perhaps. This seems to be the kind of wisdom that Meadows suggests are in systems. The character became me, even more than myself, in that moment.

As my character develops from the whole process, they are puzzled together from jigsaw pieces of each participant's experience, not just my own. What is the context before a scene? What is the undocumented life of my character beyond the text? These pieces are just like mental models to be exhumed, examined, evaluated and exchanged. When I develop a character I am looking for the mental models that provide the most complete picture from the pieces of the puzzle I have available. My mental models can also come in conflict with the needs of the character.

Character development can be troublesome for the audience also. One performance of Moonchildren was interrupted as young couple in hippie costume, come to experience our interpretation of 1966, got up at intermission and shouted to the rest of the audience, “Take a picture, it lasts longer!” They left and did not return to see the rest of the play. They had an expectation of what they would see, a mental model, that came into conflict with the play.

Being willing to examine options while a character develops is for me an exercise in humility and intuition. I have to stay humble about myself in order to create space for the character to develop and I have to use my intuition to find the right combination of pieces necessary to bring my character to life.

I have to stay humble about myself in order to create space for the character to develop

Being an actor means taking on a responsibility to not only the other actors and everyone involved with the production, but also to the text written by the author. The actor is also the caretaker of the author's words and meaning. The actor is also the caretaker of the director's vision. This means that the actor has the job of protecting the information that is being conveyed by the symbolic elements of a production. Being faithful in discharging these responsibilities is an experience for me of doing justice to wholes that are larger than myself.

There's a darker side to the theatrical world for which I have learned to take responsibility also. There are community norms and a culture that creates a privileged class of people. In most companies there is a clear division between the actors and the technical staff. I remember one play where I was not cast and had taken the job as lighting technician. I made plenty of mistakes. There was one night where I was driving around town trying to figure out where all my friends had gone only to realize that they were at the theatre for a full dress rehearsal to which I was late. There was another night, an actual audience this time, where some circuit breakers were not set correctly which caused the lighting during the second act to be completely wrong. The stage manager was held responsible for my mistakes because I was an actor that just happened to be doing lights for that production. I was not chastised, but the stage manager was yelled at by the lighting director. There's a privileged class in the theatre. This was a dynamic where I was able to experience the way that privilege worked in a small group from several sides. For the most part, the theatrical companies in which I worked were not so clearly divided along these lines because they were more academic, and the actors were required to do technical work. Even in these intentionally equalitarian learning environments there were distinct classes and divisions based on privilege and entitlement.

One of the ways this privilege and entitlement manifests is in the way some actors resist criticism. I had developed some dialog for my character in a staged Commedia Dell'Arte, The Company of Wayward Saints. An actress in the play came to me, hesitatingly and haltingly, during one rehearsal. I had been saying “Discovery Card” instead of “Discover Card” in my dialog and she had been afraid to say anything to me because of how some actors take criticism as a personal attack. Actors can be lulled by the privilege and entitlement of production, the attention and adoration of being on stage into disregarding or rejecting critical feedback.

Dealing with praise can also be difficult. As an actor, I have a very hard time accepting and believing positive feedback. On stage, I am completely aware of so many mistakes or places where my performance could have been improved. When I am faced with positive comments afterward, I have a hard time making the connection between the critic's experience of the performance and my own because they are so different. After one night of The Company of Wayward Saints, I was ecstatic to receive praise from an actor that used to be part of the company. I could accept his praise as authentic because I didn't know him well. I could accept his praise because he had no reason to give me unwarranted praise, and that I could allow myself to believe. Most of the time, however, the experience of the audience feels so very different than my own that I have to remind myself we participated in the same process together or feedback seems irrelevant.

Many times on stage I will realize that things don't feel right. This leads me to examine all the aspects of my experience and how they relate to each other to create the feeling. Perhaps my delivery of the lines is not what it should be, or the blocking of movement or stage business does not fit with where the character is in the scene. The feeling leads to the search for that adjustment that makes the whole more aesthetic. The art of theatre is making things that cannot be quantified important and present. Even the smallest element of a play can have large impacts on participants.

In a production of Charley's Aunt, my character was the butler, Brassett. I really had only one scene where my character had the stage. In this scene, I admit to sneaking some of the wine for myself. To punctuate this statement, I raised a single eyebrow. Apparently, several people mention my eyebrow to other actors in the play and ask if it was mechanical. A single gesture had a lasting impact on audience enjoyment of the play. Because of the dynamic way in which audience attention wanders, what is seen and remembered by each person is unpredictable. What each person sees and remembers is a fraction of the whole experience, and the whole experience is a fraction of all that could have been known. Like all art, what people experience is an essentially personal relationship with the art, but for theatre this experience is a collaborative reality. The production exists only in each moment as a collective, consensual metaphor.

Get up, and die right!”

For that collective experience to feel authentic, actors have to respond to each other and the audience has to react to the actors. In a the rehearsal of sword fighting during Romeo and Juliet, one of the actors fell to the ground awkwardly after being stabbed. I remember this because someone, I forget who, yelled out, “Get up, and die right!” There is an authenticity to telling tall tales that requires, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, verisimilitude. There is a semblance of truth that is as much of the truth as possible to make the lie appear true. No matter how good an actor, the audience will not believe a scene if the other actors do not react to each other. No matter how good the acting, the actors will despair if the audience fails to respond to the act. Authenticity on stage for me is a reciprocal gift between myself, the other actors and other participants.

Artificial time is one thing that helps me to stay authentic in the moment. The play exists outside of normal time and can travel forward or back instantaneously. This effect is heightened by the way that the theatrical experience skips the mundane and monotonous moments that do not further the plot in an important way. Removing the mundane creates a pace of action that could not have occurred in normal time, but paradoxically this helps me stay focused on the authenticity of the scene within the moments that are available.

I've had the hardest time with emotional scenes. Playing an emotional scene is self exploration. Problems bringing those emotions present indicates there are blockades to those emotions. I am personally very protective of my emotional self and spend a great deal of energy keeping my emotions away from view. This becomes a kind of Jungian shadow which I've suppressed. In order to act an emotional scene with authenticity, I have to have direct access to my own emotional life or else I have to re-integrate those parts of my own shadow that contain the emotions that I need for the character. It's not really possible to be authentic on stage and not become closer to one's own emotional life. Exploring a character is a process of safely exploring those parts of myself from which the character is derived. By externalizing those parts of myself, I am able to have enough distance from them that I can be compassionate with myself. Because there is distance, I am able to show parts of myself about which I may be less than willing to share otherwise, and come to terms with them as part of who I am. In this process, I can discover parts of myself that I have hidden. These unexpected self-realizations are part of the gift of the theatrical process.

open space is an exploration in spontaneous structure

The theatrical process is about unfolding complexity. The unexpected, unforeseen frequently occur. The complexity of improvisation and rehearsal is a way to practice problem solving. This is an intentional practice for me. I feel that one of my most powerful talents is a talent for acquiring talent. I tend to acquire skills and new ideas rapidly because that is essential to skillful theatre. Compartments are to me an invitation to explore what's outside. Complexity for me is an invitation to define and classify. As I read the text of a play, for example, I ask what is there and also what is not there. When faced with an empty stage or an improvisational scene, open space is an exploration in spontaneous structure. I don't know which came first, but the theatre has been an essential part of my development of problem solving skills and ability to think outside the box. This is a paradoxical balance between synthesis and analysis.

Another tricky paradox learned by an actor is to balance the actor mind versus the character mind. There are things that the actor knows about that the character does not. For example, on stage, I know that there are areas of the stage that are bathed in light, and others where I would disappear in darkness. The character does not, and cannot, know about these technicalities of lighting design. There are more fundamental differences however when it comes to what an actor knows about the whole of the play, which clearly the character cannot know, such as the character's arc of development through the story. There are times when the character is so strong that it can be hard for the actor to stay present enough. The actor learns to keep a balance between the innocence of the character and the technicalities of the actor's job on stage. It's a kind of swimming where the actor treads water between the surface and being submerged in the alternate reality of the play.


Each production is a complete universe made from scratch and completed and this is a working rendering that bridges the “gap between understanding and implementation.” Theatre has been useful to me in every endeavor I've undertaken. I have developed awareness and skills that help me in becoming a better person. These skills and the awareness of both dialogue and systems have been an important part of my life.

In my final scene each night of Moonchildren, my character is about to exit the apartment he's been sharing with the other characters for the last several years. It was a place of comfort and conflict. This place was the axis of the world for this character and he is at the final moment before leaving this all behind. He stops, turns and drinks in the last look at the world he has known. Then, with a sigh and a smile, he leaves resolved to never again look back. When I think about that moment, I realize that I was experiencing the most important aspect of theatre for me. I learned that there are no endings. There are only ever transitions to new beginnings.


Cohen, G. M. (1920). The Tavern. New York, NY: Samuel French.

Herman, G. (1966). The Company of Wayward Saints. New York, NY: Samuel French.

Meadows, D. (2001, winter). “Dancing with Systems.” Whole Earth.

Rowse, A. L. (Ed). (1984). Romeo and Juliet. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Shaffer, P. (1973). Equus. New York, NY: Penguin.

Simon, N. (1974). The Good Doctor. New York, NY: Samuel French.

Stoppard, T. (1967). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York, NY: Grove.

Thomas, B. (1892). Charley's Aunt. New York, NY: Samuel French.

Vidal, G. (1962). Romulus. New York, NY: Dramatist Play Service.

Weller, M. (1971). Moonchildren. New York, NY: Samuel French..

Wilson, E. (1988). The Theater Experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.