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Nelson '72 Describes the Peculiarity of Theater in Tolles Lecture

Richard Nelson '72 met with students prior to giving the Tolles lecture on March 11.
Richard Nelson '72 met with students prior to giving the Tolles lecture on March 11.

“This room holds many ghosts,” Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson ’72 said as he began his talk in the Chapel on Tuesday, March 11. “Ghosts in every corner.”

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Nelson, who delivered the 2014 Tolles lecture titled “The Peculiarity of Theater,” recounted how, as a student, he spent a night in the Chapel alongside fellow students protesting the Vietnam war, how he had stood at the altar as the best man at his older brother’s wedding, and how, outside on the Chapel steps, he produced his first play.

“We hung lights on the tree,” he said. “Our audience, such as it were, sat on the ground.”

Since then, Nelson has authored more than 30 plays, including the Tony-winning musical James Joyce’s The Dead, and the Off-Broadway Theater (Obie) Award-winning Vienna Notes. He has also written screenplays—most recently 2012’s Hyde Park-on-Hudson—and repeatedly contributed to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Williamstown Theater Festival.

Nelson returned to the Chapel to offer a wide-ranging, meditative manifesto to theater and its unique place in the arts. He delivered a personal message, an “open heart,” to help students understand “why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I’ve done what I’ve done, and what it means to me,” he said.

As an art form, theater is inherently tricky. Nelson noted that unlike a painting, or literature, a performance is temporary, fleeting. “You can’t put it on your shelf, pages marked, to read again and again,” he said. But this is actually the art form’s great strength. It begins and it ends, he said, just like life itself.

“Theater,” he said, “at its essence is not a building, style, or political megaphone. It is simply a kind of intimate human relationship, profoundly deep, and one by which we may know ourselves.” He noted that theater is the only art form to use the entire human form as its medium of expression, which helps foster the connection between spectator and performer. “As long as we have [this intimacy],” he said, “theater will always come back. Because when we no longer have this, we’re dead.”

To foster this intimacy means engaging the audience. The central relationship in theater, Nelson explained, is not between the actors or characters on the stage, but between the characters and the audience.  Nelson views putting on a play as an attempt to expose the ambiguities, fears and complexities of the human heart. It is the job of the director and the actors, he said, to put people on stage who are as complex as the ones sitting in the seats. “I try to write people who will spend time in a room with other people,” he noted.

Though a simple charge, it is a challenging task, but not without a rewarding pay-off. When an audience sees a person on stage “being open, being honest, and being themselves,” Nelson said, “they lean in. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing an audience lean forward.”

By putting realistic, complex characters on the stage, Nelson feels that theater is able to hold a mirror up to society, to see “how we have what we have, how we lost what we’ve lost.” Nelson sees his vocation as a charge to try and display a world on stage as intricate and as multifaceted as the world offstage. This is not to say, however, that all theater must have a purpose, or give something back to society. Instead, the two function in lock-step, and Nelson attempts to create “art not removed from life, but art that is part of society.”

These feelings, of time shared between people on stage with people in the audience, of art embedded in life and life embedded in art, of complex characters and moral ambiguity, define the experience of theater for Nelson. No artifice, no conceit is necessary—just a connection between an audience and an honest person on the stage. As one of his characters says, “strip away everything else from a person and art is all you have left. Some call this a soul. I call this art.”

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