Growing up in a stifling, lower middle-class family in the oil fields of west Texas, our only emotional outlet was not in the home-where it should have been safe-but in the church. I have written about the uncontained emotion that I often exhibited in this congregation when the Lay Witness “missionaries” would come to town once a year, transporting the normally deadpan, distant group of midcentury, working-class WASPS into an evangelical dramafest: hands extended to Jesus, crying for mercy, for forgiveness of unknown sins…all with the theatrical ending of “Jesus will save you,” “Expect a miracle,” and the people in the crowd would silently cry. Down to the altar many went–giving their life to Christ. “Miracles are alive today,” cried the missionaries. More soldiers for Christ! Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…
But after all of the “missionaries” packed up and left to another equally, dry, dusty, tumbleweed-infested Podunk, Texas church, nothing had changed. The next Sunday, the same old tired sermons, the same old stoic, boring mythology and the same old little infighting, based on myth, legend and created drama. “I’m more holy than you because I have the holy spirit in me. Jesus has given ME the ability to speak in tongues.” All it takes is a little education to realize that all this miracle about the holy spirit giving you the ability to “speak in tongues” is absolute bullshit. It’s one thing to speak and pray in another language. It’s another thing to spew out a shitload of jibberish and let all of the uneducated around you tell you you’re speaking in tongues. Dramatic fakery, was my take on the whole situation.
Robert Tilton, speaking in “tongues,” courtesy, YouTube.
What did make sense to me, though, was acting in plays at the small, notable community theater in town. The dramatic plays that came and went in our community spoke of real emotions, real life. These plays were not based on myths about superheroes who could save you eternally if you just believed in the unbelievable. No, these were real stories, real dramas, based on the everyday life of just plain folks who are caught up in the daily struggle of life, of death, of trying to make a living, of trying to find love and purpose, the pursuit of happiness in its purest form. Real. Dramatic. Life.
I thought that what I needed to be was an actor. This was my calling. It was the only thing that made sense to me. Insisting that I get out of all of that fake-church drama and pursue the art of drama in my teenage years did one thing for me. It saved me from the world of religious fantasy that was forced upon me. An acting career was, alas–and dramatically–not for me. That takes complete commitment to the craft and unbridled commitment to myself. However, I craved the blessing of my family. I was not given that confidence as a child, but rather, it was clear to me that I was to be seen and not heard. My opinion and my dreams do not matter. Shut up. Stop being so dramatic. Actors are whores. So that was the end of my dramatic dreams.
Fast forward half of a century later on the opposite side of Texas. As my husband and I were going through marriage counseling toward the inevitable end of our marriage, our very wise, very perceptive counselor mentioned how early Greek dramatic plays helped people deal with their pain and their fears long before the advent of psychology and psychotherapy.
Suddenly, the lightbulb turned on. I got it. The dramatic world that I craved as a child was not that of the stage, but that of reality. Not the drama of the religious dogma, but the dramatic playing-out of real life, real emotions, a safe place where I could release my emotions and become the person that I really was. Not a drama queen but a person with real, dramatic feelings. The stage was the one place where I could be a real person, not a follower of a 2,000-year-old superhero who was born of a virgin, performed miracles and will guarantee me “eternal life” if I only believed. No, that’s not the dramatic life that I want.
I want the dramatic life of reality.