McSweeny, Benesch: Humanity is revealed through theater


Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny speak at the Hall of Philosophy during Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture.

Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny speak at the Hall of Philosophy during Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

The playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote plays to share his message with a large number of people, an idea that seems old-fashioned in the age of new media.

But what if Shaw still chose to write plays in the midst of the 21st century?

“Is there something about the experience of live theater that actually is capable of creating more effective and profound change than sitting in front of a television or watching a movie? And I think the answer is probably yes,” Ethan McSweeny said.

“Yes,” Vivienne Benesch agreed, nodding.

Benesch and McSweeny, artistic directors of Chautauqua Theater Company since 2005, presented “Soul and Story: Choosing a Life in the Theater” together at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Their presentation was the second installment in Week Four’s afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series, “Art and Soul.”

Rather than lecture, McSweeny, a self-identified cynic, and Benesch, who errs on the side of mysticism, asked each other’s opinions about art and spirituality, demonstrating a camaraderie borne of a 16-year friendship.

“Did you choose this life?” McSweeny asked Benesch, referring to a life of theater.

She replied, “I don’t believe it was a choice for me.”

Her family is extremely artistic, she said, and she was exposed to theater at an early age. In times of turmoil, Benesch turned to theater as an alternate, controllable reality.

“To play make-believe … that was my refuge,” she said. “Was it a choice? No. It was a pull — a calling, if you will.”

“That’s a kind of loaded word — a calling,” McSweeny said.

He mused later that religion and theater share a common larger vocabulary.

“Quite a bit of that vocabulary is in the context of how we became practioners of this ancient and constantly dying art form, whose end is constantly heralded at least twice a decade, only to resurface, yet again,” he said.

He, too, was exposed to theater as a child, but considered it a hobby, something he would eventually outgrow.

“I guess I feel like I did everything I could to not choose theater,” he said.

He attended a university without a theater program in pursuit of a degree in Russian studies.

His epiphany came in college, when he realized he was failing to learn Russian because he skipped language lab to attend student production rehearsals.

“My interest in theater overwhelmed my better judgment,” he said. “It is a little mystical to characterize it as a calling, but I suppose maybe it is.”

But both emphasized that theater is a craft, not only a calling.

McSweeny asked Benesch, “When did you decide to be an artist?”

Benesch was interested in criminal law, an interest she now recognizes as an early manifestation of her passion for theater.

“It was some idea of getting to represent the disenfranchised, and to stand … publicly (to) do so,” she said. “That was very appealing to me.”

Two childhood moments in particular shaped her path, Benesch said.

One was the first time she made her father laugh.

“That moment where the child realizes they have the capacity to bring joy to someone,” she said. “I always go back to that moment. I affected someone there, and that is an addiction.”

The second was a monologue she performed in fourth grade. Others noticed her talent, and she reflected on the human desire to be the best.

She wondered aloud if McSweeny had any performing experiences of his own before he began directing.

He did.

He convinced a substitute teacher that his regular teacher, out sick, had left him in charge of the school’s theater production.

“(I) proceeded to edit and direct a production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ starring myself as Scrooge. So I think it was mostly about the acquisition of power, for me,” he joked.

He cited the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” as another formative role, “but that kind of peaked my career as a performer,” he said.

The two transitioned into a consideration of the spiritual aspect to the theater. Benesch explained the process of inviting a character’s spirit to reside within oneself.

“As an actor, you want the spirit of a person to enter you … you want to invite that character’s spirit into you,” she said. “You spend a rehearsal process having a conversation with the character you’re playing.”

“You’re describing the act of acting as a little bit like channeling … that has a spiritual dimension,” McSweeny said.

Benesch agreed and asked him about his own spirituality in regard to directing.

“I think on some level, the difference between a director and an actor is an actor goes very … deep into a single psyche, a single person, and the director’s responsibility is actually to stay a bit outside that and tell a wider story,” McSweeny said, explaining that he did not experience the same prospect of channeling that Benesch and other actors adopt. “I think I got interested in directing because I was a frustrated actor — because I wasn’t actually satisfied with just focusing on a single character.”

Directors are deliberately excluded, in part because they are the representation of the audience, he said. But McSweeny said his personal failures have a religious dimension.

“There is the quality of a demanding sacrifice of the practitioner. … It does ask of you to give up a lot of things, not just remuneration,” he said.

Despite personal disappointment with his Broadway debut, Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” he moved on, he said. He found another play and used it to tell a story and affect people.

“On a spiritual level, (theater) asks you to give up things, and I think it keeps challenging you and testing you to renew your commitment,” he said.

Benesch referenced the Monday afternoon lecture presented by Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, on the importance of getting lost in order to find one’s way.

“There’s something about, as I get older, the balance of what it means to be a dedicated, fully consumed artist and what it means to live my life as a human being, and that, actually, to be a better artist I need to keep living my real life,” Benesch said.

Many young artists fixate on their failures, believing they signify the impossibility of a successful career, instead of understanding that artists need pitfalls to become better.

“A faith journey is that: At what point do you trust?” she said.

“Have you ever thought about doing something else, recently?” McSweeny asked her.

“Momentarily,” Benesch said. “I think I experience a lot of those moments where (I say), ‘Oh, I should be doing something ‘more important.’ I think every artist goes through that,” she said.

Benesch said celebrity holds little appeal for her, but she wants to have the ability to “effect change where change is needed,” to have the opportunity to travel and to use her influence to make a positive impact.

She paraphrased advice McSweeny’s sister shared with her earlier that morning.

“She said … you don’t have to be able to do six things at once,” Benesch said. “You can create a palette or a community which can effect all that change so you are a part of all those things.”

McSweeny said he worries about reaching out to his audience, but concluded, “If you really want to sort of change the hearts and minds of people, the theater is a pretty good place to do it — at least, I hope so.

“If I hadn’t had experiences in the theater where that had happened to me, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you about why I make theater. … It only happens every once in a while, but we’re believers because we go in hope of that moment occurring again. You go in hope that that transaction that you can only really get in the live theater will occur and lift you out of yourself and return you back to yourself, a different and changed person. I think we all go questing after that moment.”

Benesch cited Anton Chekhov, playwright of Chautauqua Theater Company’s most recent production, “Three Sisters.”

Chekhov said, “If you want to change people, first you have to show them who they are.”

“That’s the charge I feel that we have, today,” Benesch said.