CTC’s McSweeny, Benesch to reflect on life through theater

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer


Although Ethan McSweeny and Vivienne Benesch have known each other personally and professionally for 15 years, there’s still more to learn.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, the two will interview each other about “Art and Soul,” the theme of this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, as it relates to the theater, in “Soul and Story: Choosing a Life in the Theater.”

“When it comes to issues of our journey in art and the spiritual nature of that journey, I think there are always new mysteries to uncover,” said Benesch, who shares with McSweeny the title of artistic director of Chautauqua Theater Company.

The two are not co-directors, though. They posed the double-director idea to the leaders of the Chautauqua Institution in 2005, and the company has since reached new levels of popularity and creativity.


The company’s most recent production, “Three Sisters,” has received mixed reviews. But Benesch said that this is one of the things she loves about the theater.

“I think a lot of (the lecture series’ theme) is what it is about our profession that brings us … back to it,” Benesch said. “Why do we keep coming back to theater as the mode to express what is in our deepest soul? Because (the audience) gets to have an opinion. … People feel — because we are, as artists, reflecting human beings as themselves — that they have authority over that. And they do, to a certain extent.”

Often, the way a play resonates with audience members may reflect their religious or spiritual convictions, Benesch said. The theater does not impose a particular message on people. The theater reflects life, and the way a person reacts to life depends on their perspective.

That is one of the challenges Benesch faced with religion. She said she is Jewish by heritage, Catholic by culture and a mixture by practice. She often went to church and temple with her friends and was drawn to the feeling of community, but said she could never identify with one particular denomination — nor did she want to.

“I was raised with a certain amount of confusion about my own religious background … so for me, it did become then about spirituality,” Benesch said. “The best replica of that (feeling of community) is theater in many ways. … Where words about ethics, mortality, future, all of those themes, are dealt with, there’s a different dialogue all to the same questions.”

For McSweeny, religion is culture. He grew up a “Protestant Catholic,” and those traditions influenced his work as an artist. Art, he said, can transcend religion and meet with a more general spirituality.

“So art has a very useful role to play in a diverse society as a place where we come together to experience something live,” McSweeny said. “And by that I mean (in the theater) that we are sharing it. … There’s the similarity that the audience comes together in a collective community, and that is without direct religion.”

The difference between religion and spirituality is blurry. Often, spirituality is an umbrella term for faith-based beliefs, which include religion. In the theater, religion cannot be placed into a well-defined box. But Benesch said there is a place for it.

“‘Yes’ is the easy answer,” she said. “Of course there is a space. But the reason there’s a space is because it’s all in the beholder’s eye. … And what I take from that, or what any audience member takes from it, may touch them in the deepest part of the dialogue they’re having with themselves as a religious person. I believe the best theater touches people accidentally. … It doesn’t tell you how to listen to it or what to do with the information you’re getting.”

Both Benesch and McSweeny have close ties to Chautauqua through each other and through the theater company. Benesch began studying theater at Chautauqua in 1989 and has returned to direct, act and teach almost every year since. McSweeny, on the other hand, came to Chautauqua once when he was dating Benesch and did not expect to return.

“I didn’t have any imagination that (Chautauqua) would come to me as a dominant force as an artist,” McSweeny said.

At the lecture series today, the Chautauquan pillars of art and religion will cross in a more direct way than the theater company has yet to experience. The Department of Religion has always supported the theater, Benesch said, but this work is consistent with the Chautauqua mission.

“This is a lovely opportunity to share,” Benesch said. “And I’m curious if people who don’t normally come to the theater will come and hear us. I hope if they do, that our passion for what we do and that it is very much a spiritual quest will lead them to the theater.”