In 1979, the International Thespian Society marked the 50th anniversary of its founding. At the kickoff to the yearlong celebration, which took place at the 1978 International Theatre Arts Conference at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., playwright Robert Patrick spoke about the importance of theatre. His comments are as relevant today as ever.

FOR 20,000 YEARS, man has had what he called “impossible” dreams: space travel, time travel, telepathy, to live other lives, to raise the dead, to create living creatures, to live forever, eternal youth, unity with his fellow man. Philosophers and spiritualists have used magic, alchemy, intellect, Voodoo, and physics in quest of these goals. Some have been attained by science. Some still evade us. Some even science calls “impossible.”

And yet for all of those thousands of years, we have already possessed those treasures, wherever there was an empty space, a poet, actors, and an audience: in theatre.

Playwright Robert Patrick, pictured in a 1977 issue of Dramatics.

Playwright Robert Patrick, pictured in a 1977 issue of Dramatics.

Space travel? The bare stage behind me can with a few words and a pantomimist’s skill become the surface of the Moon or the center of the Earth. On this stage we can be in Arabia or Iceland, Okinawa, Elsinore, Brigadoon, Oklahoma, South Pacific, or “Our Town.”

Time travel? On any evening, afternoon, or early morning we can return to Ancient Egypt, Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Elizabethan England, the France of Joan of Arc, California in the Gold Rush — or in one play travel from Cairo to Paris to Istanbul to Washington, D.C.

Raise the dead? In any or all of these times or places, people live again: Sir Thomas More, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Elizabeth herself — plus a million casual strangers some playwright met and liked or despised or wondered about centuries ago.

But we do not merely watch these people, uncomprehending, as tourists. At those moments when real living people would stand stuttering, stammering, or trembling with illiterate rage, these fascinating people open their mouths and speak their thoughts aloud. Hamlet comes on and in 10 words speaks the tormenting choice that underlies the ecstasies and agonies of every adolescent. Frankie Adams articulates the confusions and discoveries that mark the end of childhood. King Lear screams the anger of old age. And Eliza Doolittle, happily awake in bed, peeks from under the covers and confides in us that she could have danced all night!

But, excuse me — there never was a Hamlet, a Frankie Adams, a king called Lear, nor an Eliza Doolittle? And yet they have appeared alive and joyous in literally thousands of places: here on this stage, before and after this time on others, simultaneously on a hundred stages at once around the world, these absolute hallucinations recur!

We have seen the creation of life so often that we have forgotten it is a miracle.

Telepathy? When we hear a play, we are reading the mind of a poet: a poet in whose mind Charlie Brown and The Curious Savage and Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick were born. Magic? Magic can’t come anywhere near it. We do not travel to Shangri-La and Brooklyn, Amherst and Oz, alone. We do not travel as unarmed aliens, breaking curious customs and catching unusual diseases. We travel in luxury with the greatest guides in the world. We are allowed for the two hours of a play to share computer-time in the mind of George Bernard Shaw, to see with the eyes of Edward Albee, to hear with the enchanted ear of Shakespeare, to play in the imagination of Oscar Wilde, to hurt with the lonely heart of Carson McCullers.

And no matter how young we are or how old we grow, they and their creations are still here, always alive: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson on Baker Street; Sally Bowles and Christopher Isherwood in Berlin; Dolly triumphantly taking over the Harmonia Gardens in that hat; Hecuba and Andromache bewailing the civilization that topples around them; poor Charlie lost in a maze that had been familiar a moment before.

It’s telepathic travel in the minds of geniuses through ancient and imaginary lives of forefathers and phantoms for all eternity. What are the scientists and the statesmen troubling themselves for? Aren’t they sitting there in the dark beside us as we all, side by side, rank on rank — people who might not even be willing to talk to one another outside the theatre — laugh together and gasp together, and are not even ashamed to cry because we can hear that others in the dark around us are crying? Isn’t it another kind of mind-reading, a growing together of spirits, that makes 2,000 people laugh simultaneously at the silliest slapstick joke?

These incredible treasures are everywhere — everywhere that there is an empty space, a poet, actors, and an audience. When they ask you, “What is theatre for?” simply tell them: “It does what every other field of human endeavor is struggling to do.” Theatre is incredibly important.

Why do I say this when so many of you have had to fight for money and permission and time to do it? When you are constantly told to cut down the budget or “keep it as a hobby?” I say it because you are here to do and see and learn about theatre when there are a billion other things you could be doing. It must be important.

I say it because you are willing to sacrifice anything, because your happiest moment is when you are doing a show, because for all human beings everywhere, the best moment together has always been when they were all seeing a show. Call it a ritual, a cabaret act, a movie, a street-clown, a public execution, a parade, a television show, a football game, a rock star having a public nervous breakdown, or “only a play” — whenever the cares of daily living allow it, all humanity rushes to see a show. Theatre, like the air around us, is essential. And like the air, we never miss it until it’s gone. When are we not putting on a show for one another?

I am in love with theatre, and I have never questioned that love, but, as one will do with things one loves, I have examined it. I have never understood what it is that makes us, alone of all animals, congregate in great masses and behave ourselves while we watch other people doing what we have done, dream of doing, cannot do, or hope we never do.

I do not know the origin of theatre. I think there are as many origins as there are kinds of theatre. But I do know some of the purposes to which we put it.

  • I believe that the old tribal genealogist reciting births and deaths and marriages was the father of all histories and pageants.
  • I believe the mother crooning a lullaby to tell her baby that everything is going to be all right was the mother of Mary Poppins and Arabian Nights and every love story with a happy ending.
  • I believe the hunter returning with or without a kill is the original of every alibi, adventure, and fable.
  • I believe the priest praying for his tribe to be saved from plague and calamity was the original of every poet who ever created an operatic hero.
  • I believe the mad prophetess warning of impending doom inspired tragedies and disaster movies from Euripides to Earthquake.
  • I believe the weaklings smiling and making faces for an extra piece of fish were the instructors of vaudeville comics, TV clowns, W.C. Fields, Mae West, and Lucille Ball. And I know that the prettiest girl and the handsomest boy strutting before the tribe with a smirk on their gorgeous faces were the direct progenitors of classical ballet and every Broadway chorus line.
The May 1979 cover of Dramatics celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Thespian Society.
The May/June 1979 cover of Dramatics celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Thespian Society.

When are we not putting on a show for one another? You cannot stop yourself from making theatre — but if you are unaware that you are making theatre, you may helplessly start out making propaganda, politics, unrealistic advice, or accidental religions (this is true both within and without the walls of a theatre).

No one can stop us making theatre. In a frontier town, an opera house is the first sign of civilization. In the ruins of every catastrophe, as soon as a pot is bubbling over a fire, someone tells a story and does a dance. Nothing ever quite kills theatre — and nothing ever quite stops it from being reborn.

There is a Tarot card, the Knave of Pentacles, which shows a young person lightly holding on to a golden ball with a star carved on it. The ball will roll out over the land and the knave will follow it through education and adventure. I followed it from a place where we were not allowed to make any deliberate theatre (except an annual high school production of Our Town) to New York City — it might as well have been Baghdad — where I stumbled into the first of New York’s permanent underground theatres, the Caffe Cino. 

At a time of great confusion, thousands of us wandered there. In basements, coffeehouses, bars, and bowling alleys, we shared our insanities and insights and made them into theatre. We made pop operas and protest marches, plays that played with time and with our time, and plays that just played. Out of that particular enchanted forest came many people whose plays you do today; it was an unprecedented period of invention, innovation, and rediscovery in the theatre. 

Eventually we were discovered; the bubbling pot was uncovered, you might say, and we boiled over and there was confusion and chaos again, and when the steam cleared everything was in ruins. I packed my bag, Dad, and left Baghdad and went wandering again, convinced that my theatre had been crushed, the golden ball had been lost, and with it my trail. 

But once I got out into the world, I discovered that beside the bus station in Oklahoma City was a theatre where there had been none before, that in a shopping mall in Eugene, Ore., there was a theatre, that in the streets of San Diego children were doing street theatre. 

I have traveled a great deal since and seen two things that no one has yet admitted: that we are seeing a renaissance of theatre on an unprecedented scale, and that much of what I saw, either in its form, its content, or in the spirit that caused it to be done, was influenced by the work and energy that had been done back in my lost paradise of Off-Off-Broadway.

The golden ball is still rolling, and I have begun to follow it again. And it has brought me here today to this steaming stew of education and experiment and entertainment and opportunity. What a treasure all of you hold in your hands. I know — I held it once myself!

There was a condescending crack we all used to make when our work was unappreciated. We’d say, “Oh, they’d rather keep doing Our Town.” Well, I saw Our Town recently in a theatre in California and do you know something? Our Town is wonderful. I’m glad it’s still around. All plays are wonderful or can be — and if they don’t speak to you, give yourself time, or step aside and let them speak to the people they do speak to. 

You are free to do plays I could never have done in high school — although I know many of you are still fighting restrictions and taboos. I want you to keep fighting for your freedom, but also never to lose respect for what has gone before — and will come after. 

Of course, do Our Town. Share it with each other, be aware of the magical fact that you are watching it, not only sitting beside your contemporaries, but beside people who saw it before you were born, and beside your own grandchildren as they will see it. But support and create every kind of theatre. Theatre grows more important every year. In the face of the enormous anonymity of films and television, living people on a stage expressing individual points of view become absolutely essential. Fight for that freedom; fight for that life. 

Especially — especially fight for your own freedom. Yes, do the old Our Town, but, two years from now, in 1980, among many traditional plays — and many controversial contemporary ones — I want to see at least a dozen versions, from a dozen states, written and directed and acted by you, of Our Town, 1980 — and that’s a challenge.

The Golden Ball keeps rolling: Catch!

This story appeared in the May 1979 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

International Thespian Society 90th birthday logo
  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Thespian Throwback: <br/>Growth Spurt

    Thespian Throwback:
    Growth Spurt

    David Finkel became our millionth Thespian in 1976

    Aug 22, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Toys

    Thespian Throwback: Toys

    Hairspray author shares thoughts on writing

    Aug 15, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Thespians Onstage 1970s

    Thespian Throwback: Thespians Onstage 1970s

    Browse popular high school productions of the past

    Aug 08, 2019