In this episode, Charles has gone to considerable efforts in the operating room to restore the leg of a GI who was wounded by mortar fire. This GI’s right hand was slightly injured in the same incident, but, as it was not his major injury, Charles did not go to extreme lengths to restore it, leading to “… a slight loss of dexterity in three fingers.” When the GI (Private Sheridan) wakes up after the surgery and learns this, he is devastated as he is a Julliard piano graduate and had been starting on a career as a concert pianist before he was drafted.
Charles was (reasonably enough) very upset by Sheridan’s conviction that his career was over and that, therefore, his life had lost its meaning. To try to relieve his guilt, Charles obtains a copy of the score for Ravel’s "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major" (written by Ravel for a pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I). When he gives this music to Sheridan, he is rebuffed by him for thinking that a meaningful career could be based on playing such “freakish” pieces. To this, he responds:
Major Charles Winchester: Don't you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.
Private David Sheridan: Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift. I *had* a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?
Major Charles Winchester: Wrong! Because the gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You've performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you've already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world - through the baton, the classroom, or the pen. As to these works, they're for you, because you and the piano will always be as one. (quote from IMDB, retrieved 08/27/18, emphasis added by RSB)
What does this have to do with theatre, or other arts? I’m not sure that I can discuss anything other than theatre with any real degree of authority, although I suspect that the idea is equally valid in other arts. But, let’s look at theatre.
A theatre person, like a musician, usually begins with material created by someone else; music is written by a composer, playscripts are written by playwrights. The job of a musician is to translate the composer’s written score into “the music” conceived by the composer. The job of theatre people is to translate the playwright’s script into a work of theatre, in much the same way. I find this to be a very comparable process. I think it is quite reasonable to compare a theatre company to an orchestra. Both, after all, are sometimes referred to as an “ensemble,” and both are usually guided by a “conductor,” although in the theatre we generally call that person a “director.”
Now, the conductor doesn’t play all of the instruments, any more than the director plays all of the parts, does all the designs, etc. But, the conductor/director guides the entire creative team. Hence, while there is one leader, there are many interpretive-creators, working together to achieve the goal of a successful performance, since notes on a page are (probably) even less meaningful than words in script form. After all, many people can read a script, but reading the script is NOT the same as attending a performance.
I believe that in order for a theatre company to achieve success, it requires not only that each of its members must have the requisite talent to accomplish that member’s function, but that each have at least some understanding of the desired goal, the exact “music” which they are attempting to play. Here the conductor/director analogy may break down a bit as the conductor will remain at the podium leading the performance in a way that theatre directors could only wish for, but this doesn’t mean that the analogy falls apart completely.
While both sorts of groups rehearse, in order to overcome the challenge of not having the director conduct the performance, theatre companies spend many more hours working together in rehearsal. And, at the appropriate point, the contributions (“notes”) of the designers and technicians are added into the “music” of the complete production. Only then can it become a finished performance.
I believe that the propose of theatre education is to assist in the process of preparation for this end because, as previously stated, I believe that “making the music” requires all of the participants to understand the “music” being performed. Acting is more than just memorizing lines and walking about the stage. Scenery, costumes, lighting, sound and props should be created to do more than just fill up the space; they should make a positive contribution to the production (they have their own “notes” to play). No director can do everything, no matter what Gordon Craig might have wished.
But, the talents required to fulfill the various positions in the theatre are as varied as those need to fill the various chairs in an orchestra, perhaps more. How can one educational process possibly help accomplish all of these requirements? Obviously, some technical skills work (technique) is necessary, so there are classes for that, be they in acting or tech/design. Similarly, a Music education requires fairly extensive work in solo, or group lessons and ensemble work, just as Theatre programs require/expect appropriate production participation. However, all (I think) Music programs also require at least some course work in music theory, history of music, conducting, basic piano, and orchestration/arranging, etc. In the same way, Theatre programs require some dramatic lit./crit., some theatre history, some basic acting and tech work, and some directing in addition to specific advanced skills classes. The question, which I have heard from many students, is “Why do I have to take this stuff which doesn’t relate to what I intend to do?”
I have heard that from any number of students over the years in relation to the basic theatre studies classes, which I did try to teach many times over the years; the implication being that such studies were less important than the “skills” classes which the students enjoyed more and which they felt were keeping them from taking the more “important” classes they really wanted. I disagree! Over the period of time from, roughly 1962 (when I started to study theatre seriously) to when I retired from teaching in 2014, I never engaged in a theatre project (and I served in some capacity in about every area of theatrical production during that time) that I didn’t gain some greater understanding of what I was doing and how to make it better from the knowledge I had (slim though it might have been) in theatre history, literature and the other areas of theatre studies.
One can’t always know exactly what it is which makes a production element (or an entire production) “work,” but one can usually tell when it does. I found that much of the work of a director lies in trying to assist the entire team to know (recognize) how to understand when it does. Note: The entire team HAS to understand not just “when,” but “how,” because, unlike the orchestra (which has a conductor), the director will NOT be present “conducting” the theatrical performance, so the cast and crew have to be able to do it without her/him present!
One of my greatest memories in the theatre was at the end of the first read-through of Becket’s Waiting for Godotwhen I directed it in the Niggli in 1977-78. As we came to the end of the script, a complete silence fell over us as if to say, “What the hell just happened?” As that silence continued, I believe that we all came to the realization that that was exactly the reaction we wanted from our audience; that, in some sense, we had made Beckett’s “music.” Then, of course, our challenge was to try to translate that sensation into a fully mounted production and achieve the same end for the audience. I know we were not fully successful for everyone who attended, but I think we got there for some people, which is probably all one can hope for.
I’ve learned that theatre is always the pursuit of perfection while knowing that it will never be achieved. While I always strove for the absolute best from myself, my students, my casts, crews, etc., I was always conscious that what we created would never be “perfect.” And that that was okay. After all, once perfection has been achieved, where is there to go? One might as well just quit. I never wanted to do that, I wanted to keep fighting to get as close as possible, and on a few occasions, I think I/we got pretty close. That’s what I wanted for my students, too; for them to understand that it’s not enough to just “play the notes,” you have to continually strive to “make the music.”
And, then you have to do it again. For that, one has to have more than just basic talent and technical skill or “technique.” Ultimately, it demands everything which one can give to it in the way of knowledge, imagination and dedication, too. But, I think the fight is worth it!