Come spirit
Come charm
Come days that are warm
Come magical spell
Come help him get well

If you’re a former theater kid who now has a both favorite kind of ibuprofen and a favorite Taylor Swift song, you probably recognize these words. They’re the ritual created in the last scene of the musical Secret Garden, where the children call upon the healing powers of the green world.

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I get that the play is overwrought and problematic (what isn’t?) and generally a bit Too Much. Yet, when I think about theater’s healing powers, this moment is what comes to mind.

Actor Ethan Goodmansen shows castmate Heidi Jablonski stage makeup wounds on his arm.
Jebediah (Ethan Goodmansen) shows Amelia (Heidi Jablonski) his wounded arm. Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

I’ve been thinking a lot about theater as a healing space lately, because my heart has been churning over Amy Wratchford’s brilliant articles (“The Reckoning is Here” and “Excuse Me, Why Do You Exist?“) challenging nonprofit theaters to ask ourselves, What is this all for?

Amy is mostly writing about theaters that are very (VERY) different from Silk Moth Stage, or, frankly, any of the theaters I’ve worked at. Let’s just say…I’ve never worked at a place where the budget was at a scale that it could get into 2.5 million dollars worth of trouble.

But the questions she raises are valid and important, and perhaps more instructive for a theater that is as young as Silk Moth (just about to start our second season!).

Amy writes:

I am going to ask questions for which I don’t have the answers, but I think they need to be asked and explored, transparently and publicly, for the future of nonprofit theatre in this country. For clarity, none of these questions are meant to question the quality of the work being done at either of these theatres or any others named or unnamed here; quality theatre (whether pure entertainment, thought-provoking and challenging, or any other type) is not in question, but whether quality theatre is enough of a reason for an organization to be nonprofit in any particular community is.

She points out that “the vast majority of our institutions, large and small, are run on dangerously thin margins and only fit the 501(c)(3) definition if you squint and look sideways.” There’s a list of purposes for exempt organizations on the IRS’s website. Unfortunately, “creating nifty shows” is not on there.
Her questions remind me of the classic dramaturg question: “Why this play? Why now?” This pair of questions has become kind of cliched, almost a joke at this point, because the answers are always a twisty way of saying, “Because I feel like it,” and “Because we happen to have found someone to pay for it.”

Silk Moth’s purpose was something I knew last year, but felt a bit too grand to put out there publicly. It’s a dare, I think. We gleefully co-opted Shakespeare & Company’s definition of the classics: “The highest truths, universally told, with healing powers,” and always paired that definition with this caveat: “We can argue forever about what truths are the highest, and we have doubts about whether a universal telling is possible, but we know for sure, we need those healing powers.” Claiming that we can offer experiences of healing feels extraordinarily bold. And maybe silly. Can a play about invisible monsters or Shakespeare and robots offer healing? How can we measure that impact?

But this image of healing is the one I keep returning to. I saw a production of The Cure at Troy last fall at Quest Players in New York, and the director, Joe Travers, told me about how he had visited some of the ancient Greek theater complexes. “They were actually like hospitals. They had three sections. There was a section where you’d get medical treatment, and then there was another section for care of your body, with massages and baths. And then there was the theater. It was a necessary component in your healing.” This vision, of theater as integral for healing, was part of his inspiration for the production.

When I think about what we’re doing at Silk Moth, about the kinds of experiences we’re trying to create, about the plays we’re selecting, the thread that runs through all of them is that they examine some of the hardest things humans encounter in life…through a lens of humor and resilience. The structure of our performances, centering first on community and connection, sharing food, connecting with the earth, and then ending with a circle around the fire, the oldest form of human community, is built in response to the isolation we all dealt with during the lockdowns. What a wild time, where the best way to protect everyone’s health was through separation. The opposite of laying on of hands. But now, we have a vaccine. We have good protocols. We have better understanding of the virus and how it spreads. We can be together, especially outside, safely. So now it’s time to re-learn how to be present in space. How to look each other in the eyes, in real time. How to break bread together.

Katie Downing writes her list of “brilliant things.” Photo by Tiffany Showalter Photography

Last year, for each of our plays, several audience members reached out to say that the experience was a healing one for them. Some named specific traumas that connected to the content of the plays. Some spoke about the feeling of being part of a tiny, temporary community, going on a journey together. Some described chance encounters at the fire with people they had given up on reconciling with, and coming away feeling hope for their future connection.

Again and again, without me asking for it, people used the word “healing.” “This show healed something I didn’t know was broken.” “You’ve created a healing space.” “I saw my story in the stories on stage, and I felt an old wound beginning to heal.”

It’s been a place of healing for me, too. I’ve long had a big divide in my life between my family and my art. I identify as a parent-artist, but I think other parent artists are more integrated. They make art about parenthood, or they bring their kids to rehearsal, or they paint with their babies on their backs. The closest I’ve come to making art about parenthood was when I directed Richard III, which probably says something about me. I love my children, and I love my art, but they have always been in separate buckets. When I’m in rehearsal, I forget that they exist, for a minute. When I’m with them, even if we’re talking about theater (which we do a lot!), I’m not thinking about my work in the theater.

And then Silas pointed out that our porch was a stage, and suddenly, I’m having this wildly integrated experience. Last summer, while I was working on Give Us Good, sometimes they’d come sit with me during rehearsal and ask a question. Petra showed the actors where to find mint for their water and helped Amber collect flowers for her character’s ritual. Silas was even in the reading of Prussian Blue that we staged. It’s a wild thing, to suddenly have this fissure in my life closing a little.

We’re working to connect with more people in our community, and to offer healing beyond those who can easily get to us and afford a ticket (while also paying artists!). I’m beyond excited about the grant we got from the Arts Council of the Valley, which will allow us to cover food, transportation, childcare, and tickets for low-income and unhoused people from our community to join us for a play. I hope this is only the beginning.

People have been telling me for a decade that I should start a theater. I always deflected, saying that it seemed like a lot of work (it is). The truth, though, is that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have answers for Amy’s questions. I didn’t know what I had to offer that wasn’t already happening. But now, I know, and I have an amazing team that shares this vision. We are honoring artists. We are creating accessible experiences, with a broad understanding of what counts as accessible. We are doing new classics, seeking the highest truths, striving for a universal telling, and praying for healing powers. We are creating opportunities for healing and connection.

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