Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

Is Theatre Helpful?

Sarah Ruhl

The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl

When writing my play The Oldest Boy, which involves an American child recognized as a Tibetan tulku, I often called people in the Tibetan community for help and insight. I’ll never forget when I first wrote to an eminent Tibetan scholar, asking to have a conversation about reincarnation, and he wrote back immediately, “I am happy to talk with you, as your play might benefit other sentient beings.”

I thought: oh my goodness. He is assuming that art is helpful.

Again and again, when I looked to the Tibetan community for advice or help, they gave it without question, with the confident assumption that art might be helpful. In helping me put a play on, they felt confident that they might be helping others.

This confidence in art’s helpful quality—“your play might benefit other sentient beings”—is not, I think, a deeply held conviction in the West. Or—to put it another way—it might be a deeply held unconscious belief held by many artists, but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. “Ah! You’re an artist! Well then you must be helping other sentient beings!” One does not hear that kind of reinforcement about one’s usefulness in general.

In our culture (which evolved from the Pilgrims), the utility of pursuits with moral uplift or application is made into the opposite of the solipsistic luxury of art. Art is often defined by both artists and non-artists alike by its very uselessness.

But artists know that art is not useless, else they would not make it. Nor would audiences engage with art if they truly thought it was useless.

What if we confidently assumed that what we were doing was useful, even helpful?

When we rehearsed The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center Theater, we had two Tibetan lamas visit our rehearsal room to answer our questions about reincarnation and Buddhism. They answered our questions, and they blessed the rehearsal room.

At one point, Lama Pema leaned forward, looked at us keenly, and said, “Art and religion aren’t very different.” Then he started laughing and said, “And someone’s got to do it!” And then he laughed some more. His laughter contained many convictions. That art and religion are difficult. And also essential to a culture that values consciousness and gentleness.

He said, “For Tibetans, our culture is our capital. We have an economy of culture.” He told us that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into exile after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the first thing he did was to set up a training program in Dharamsala, India, to preserve the ancient arts of Tibetan dance and music. The first thing he did was not to set up
an army. He wanted to preserve his people; and in order to do so, he set out to preserve their culture.

Being exposed in a daily way to a culture that confidently assumes that art is valuable (and valuable precisely because it is helpful, and directed towards others) changed my outlook. I thought: art is already helpful. How can it be more helpful? How might this play give something back to the community that so generously gave of itself?

On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake shook Nepal. Many Tibetans who I know in New York could not reach their families in Nepal for days. Whole families were instantly extinguished. Others lived in tents for the foreseeable future. Countless temples and homes were destroyed.

I wanted to help in some small way. I spoke to James Yaegashi who acted in the Lincoln Center production of The Oldest Boy. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, James created an event called Shinsei to rally the international theatre community to offer help. I don’t use the term “international theatre community” lightly, though some might call it an oxymoron. I believe that there is, profoundly, an international theatre community—even though theatre is by its nature intensely local. When like-minded artists meet artists from disparate countries and cultures, they often feel a kinship that goes beyond nationality. Art has no flag, and art brooks no nation-states.

After talking to James about his experiences with Shinsei, I hatched a plan to do readings of The Oldest Boy in multiple cities in North America on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Nepal, April 25. The readings will serve as a fundraiser to help Tibetan refugees still affected by the earthquake. When I approached theatres about their willingness to help in this endeavor, I found that, just as the Tibetan community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help with the production of a play, so too the theatre community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help people on the other side of the globe. Theatres in Toronto, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Brooklyn, Portland, Philadelphia, and Washington DC quickly signed on. Theaters who were already producing The Oldest Boy in Marin, San Diego and Kansas City jumped in and raised funds for Nepal.

And I thought: could it be that the desire of art to help does nothing to diminish its status as an art object, and instead allows it more reach? Could it be that our secular theatre, operating quietly and steadfastly in a capitalist culture, still keenly feels its ritual function as a catalyst in
a massive gift culture? If plays are thought of gifts rather than as commodities, how do we give them away?

A challenge for playwrights: write your next play as a gift for someone you love. A challenge for audiences and critics: think of the play you are about to receive as a gift that was given to you in the hopes that you would like it. A challenge for producers: find a way not to charge admission for your next theatrical event. Instead, serve food for free. A challenge to dramaturgs: document radical acts of generosity in the theatre in the hopes of inspiring others. A challenge for actors, directors, and designers, who already give so much of themselves for free: how can we think of ourselves as more full, more fed, every time we give more of ourselves away?

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Her play The Oldest Boy will be read in ten different cities at ten different theatres on April 25th to raise money for Tibet Fund. For more information on how to participate in the event, or to sponsor your own reading of the play, go to and click on “Benefit.”

This piece originally appeared on Howlround.

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