What If?

Written for ARTH 4 on 13 April 2023

A grounds of spectacle, a lifted aerial commanding light, a structure – depth – connecting sky and ground and the underbelly. The liminal space between above or beneath, recalling ages and eons past. Down by the river, amidst tulip bulbs sprouting, pollen releasing into the air above, a fluttering trio of birds comes to rest at the edge of the Greek theatre. 

We, the trio, are spirits of Greek choruses past, bearing the names of long-dead gods whose names live on beyond their existence in culture, no longer invoked, revered, inspired, no longe brought forth singularly as muse—we are Hestia, Andromeda, and Hecate, singing a song of pleasure, divinity, but also sorrow, chirping on, and on, and on.

Sorrow for the theater unbuilt, for the comedies unplayed, for the tragedies never unfurled to full witness, for the warm communities never manifest in being. But also joy, for we possess a prophetic vision of the theater rendered into the experience of this institution set in the woods, a grand theater in harmony with New Hampshire’s natural beauty instead of dividing itself with only a patch of monocultured grass to show for its center. In every harmonious balance, there is a Apollonian / Dionysian cycle, where the secret to happiness is switching between hermit-like living in the countryside, low sensory stimulation, inner life, and when rested and regenerated, an electric bustling life, buoyant, erratic, high sensory stimulation, a hedonistic spontaneous outer life. The vision of the theater embodies how through this duality, it serves a greater than life purpose.

First, let us make real to you our vision. In this way, imagination is a religious conversion, a belief that one deserves the version of the world they fantasize about, converting oneself to lingering in this reality – if only reality for just a moment. Resting in this vision, let us imagine – a cacophony of sound, radiant light shining from above, the crowds of Dartmouth College gathered around a spectacle of student performance art – look! They’re gyrating, then shaking as if possessed, then leaping, then rapidly going mute, then spewing words that stir one to tears! We, too, burst into tears at this profound declaration of human sentiment, articulated not merely through the diction, but through the body’s expression, the interplay between characters that rises to a climax then falls apart as helplessly as a perfectly baked potato falls open, in the way that all things return to entropy. Perhaps in our rendering of this theater, one can imagine just institutions inspired by the power of divine love, spanning the abyss between humankind and transcendence – whose potential art is ought to call forth, as art ought to do.

Again, our prophetic vision of this college in the woods contains ever more layers, deceptively simple at first, yet deeply nuanced, just like the Greek theater slowly reveals the extent of its layers as you descend its stone steps, as you navigate its backstage and peer out from behind its columns. Though the theater represents the Dionysian hedonism of wild crowds and glorious fanfare, in its elegant stone-honed existence as an open-air theater, opening one’s experience of the world into a demarcated plot of open air with both space, depth, yet also boundaries, one can experience the divine in a different way – the Apollonian path, the music and dance, truth and prophecy, the healing and the spiritual, the introspective. Though the college contains souls who long for the full range of human activities and experience, these souls can only operate within the wilderness, constrained within the limits of communing with nature, communing with each other, or communing with themselves. One might say the latter is ever-more necessary, in a day and age when social experience is easily kept at surface level, when there is little space to introspect, and more importantly, to connect with one’s inner world and bring that out into connection with others.  The steps of the theater can symbolize a journey upwards on a spiritual path, as one can meditate and feel in union with the world. Encircled by grand stone tiers in a semicircle, rows and rows lifting one up in harmony, one realizes, groundEDness presupposes actual ground. The bowl-like theater comes to encompass everything there is–in stark duality, it is the practice of performance and external energy, but also the practice of doing nothing, the internal. In this, we find quiet satisfaction in the importance of public space — filled with glorious open space, light, and natural beauty — in the architecture of nothing, allowing for one to pay attention to minutiae and slow down. 

We look forlornly at the state of the arts now, and the lack of attention to the ethics of care and maintenance. Today, the Hop, the center of campus student arts, is closed. Alternative theater spaces are few and far between, with the student performance venue existing — quite literally — underground, no windows nor light to be seen. In a dim basement, small, containing nothing except the necessary sound equipment and mirrors — it doubles as a rehearsal space for dance practice, filled with sweating bodies in loungewear, necessary for the practical, but certainly not the grand cohesion and harmonious fusion of body, sound, physicality, musicality, and light that theater and performance, the most expressive of the human arts, aims to encompass. 

As spirits of the chorus, embedded in a once great culture, we knew how the Greeks commanded a view of the world as theirs for the taking, ripe with delights. We sprung out of a culture that invented theater not only to engage the people in community — a communing for civic engagement — but also for escapism. In the same way, a center for theater, congregating hundreds of students spanning an immense depth and encircled expanse, with the stage at the theater, could symbolize the full circle comeback of our community’s cornerstone of play. Playing, played, play. Not only in the Greek play, Shakespearean meaning, but play, as in encouraging one’s inner child, experimenting with sensation and intuition as well as perception and profundity, letting go of the dull imposed structures that society often imposes upon us — which ironically, manifests in its uncreative, uninspiring, straight up and down buildings with little depth nor entrancement of vision. We look back to the structure of the semicircle, the columns regally heralding its stage, commanding infinite potential for play and expression and the infinite. In our search for the divine through performance and escapism, during the aftermath, during the afterglow, the physicality of the stone structure reminds us through tiered exits and physical walkways that we must ground ourselves in our bodies and somatic wisdom, to honor our roots. Taking a walk around the center stage’s columns, circling the spectator seats, looping out to the natural expanses, and to the river, perhaps through this conception of space and place, we learn about our own history. We can notice the continual labor of upkeep, the work of maintenance and care to sustain the center of life – whose hands crafted these designs, and whose labor brought it to life? 

Leaving this golden dream, in the negative space of thetheaterunbuilt,thetheaterneverthere, we perch at the edges and linger. We notice the ways in which our community has separated, the lack of a common appreciation of fine art and depth and physical representations of play and story. Yet in our ability to linger behind, in our willingness to investigate and hone the practice of attention, in the woods where this theater is unbuilt, as spirits of Greek choruses past, as a trio of birds chirping along, we realize, life forms its circles, and life still goes on.