First Thoughts on THE OLDEST BOY
First Thoughts on The Oldest Boy
delivered by Jessica Thebus at first rehearsal, August 17, 2015
For each play I direct, I write a few words to share with everyone at this special moment at the very start of the process – a first day address to the company if you will.
It would make sense to expect in these remarks an explanation of the play from the director’s perspective. I have had the great privilege to work with Sarah Ruhl on many of her plays and the premieres of a few of them and I think one thing I have learned is that it is not helpful to try to explain them. Although that might seem important at the start of a rehearsal process, to explicate what is mysterious, I cannot offer explanation, nor do I think it is wise.
This playwright writes about her own profound moments and conflicts and realizations as a human being. And our job is to meet her work with our own vulnerabilities and realizations and profound questions. And what happens between her words and our work is a kind of ceremony, a ceremony of being human and alive at this moment. And we share that ceremony with the audience. What matters is our humility, and intention, and the depth of the connection we each make to her words.
I am eager to discuss with you all the elements that make The Oldest Boy such an unusual and vivid experience. It is about the predicament of the people of Tibet who live under occupation and who live in exile and who struggle to preserve their culture. It is about Tibetian Buddhism and the possibility of re-incarnation. It is about two cultures trying to connect to each other through two people who fall in love. It is about the comic mysteries of contemporary American parenting, and the multiple pitfalls and absorbtions that parents are encouraged to fear and obsess over. It is about the transitions we go through to find ourselves. The extraordinary bond between mother and child. The extraordinary bond between a teacher and a student. And Theatrically, it is also in large part about the challenges and opportunities offered by puppetry.
But in these first remarks, I will invite us to think deeply about ceremony. What it is, and what it’s like, and what it gives us. From the very first draft I read of the play, I loved most that it is subtitled a play in 3 ceremonies. The playwright seems to suggest that in fact that the play is made up of three ceremonies, that those three ceremonies contain all that matters in the play. Why does this move me so much?
What is a ceremony? It is a ritual combination of action and emotion that takes us through important transitions. As the poet John O’Donohue says, “to cross the threshholds worthily.” There have been times in my life when I have so appreciated the availability of ceremony to mark change. There have been other times, like the death of my father a few years ago, when I was desperate to create ceremony that was not available to me, to help me through that profound transition. In this play the 3 ceremonies are a wedding, when the couple from very different backgrounds ceases to become two separate people and becomes one couple. Then, a funeral, where they try to properly mourn the father’s mother in a land so far away from her. And then the son’s enthronement ceremony entwined with the mother’s taking refuge, when the impossible happens, when the she loses her son and finds her teacher.
It is this loss and finding in combination that rings so true. So true of the pain and process of life. It’s always going to be loss and finding, loss and finding, and the finding does not lead to getting over the loss. They must co-exist, neither erasing the other but always held in a paradoxical tension. And maybe ceremony helps us hold both things.
And perhaps ceremony also helps us make sense of the fleetness of our lives and the impossibility of things like motherhood, the predicament of motherhood as Sarah says, where you are designed to love someone more than your own life, and it is biologically designed to leave you. Finding and loss, and you know from the beginning that it will be both.
And then in the epilogue at the end of the play, she has lost her son forever. And her son is always there and has been her father and it is the end. And the beginning, and the end, and the beginning.
We are all here to make this event unfold in a theater, to share with an audience. And I love it when my experience in a theater feels like a ceremony. When it has nothing to prove but the reality of the act of witnessing an important event. When there is time for the mystery within a play to emerge, and when it feels like there is transformation—that something is changed, that I am changed. That things have been lost and found and I am not sure how, but that there has been a space created that allowed me to go through something, to cross a threshold worthily.
We will use our theatrical gifts to create such a ceremony for ourselves and for the audience, beautiful, reverent and irreverent, tragic and comic, theatrical and simple. A ceremony for the endings and the beginnings we are all in the middle of in this life. And perhaps it will allow us all to mourn and to celebrate and to find both our worthy endings, and our new beginnings.