The First Day is an online magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction, visual arts, reviews, and poetry that highlights the individual experience of beauty, faith, journey, and growth. Their mission is to break down walls between faith traditions and cultural backgrounds to form a common space to share personal stories of struggle and triumph.
Editor Jana Lewellyn interviewed Benjamin Lloyd about his work for White Pines, his experience as a member of Bright invention, and the intersection of his faith and creativity. You can read the orginal interview here, and learn more about this beautiful publication: The First Day.
Here's the interview:
What was your first experience of theatre, and what led you to want to make it your vocation?
Ben: I grew up surrounded by dancers and performers, so from a very early age I was exposed to live performance. My mother was a dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1960s, and for a time my dad was the company manager. One event from that era in my life that had a lasting impact on me was when my dad took me to see Peter Brook’s famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1968. I made him take me back, and my love affair with Shakespeare and especially that play (which I have performed three times now) has continued to this day.
In adolescence, acting answered a very deep sadness inside me. I was a lonely only child who didn’t fit in, and suddenly, in seventh grade I found myself with a group of kids similarly afflicted, and we all “got” each other.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning American playwright Edward Albee (The Sandbox, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has a really compelling speech on the internet about the problem with theatre in our modern age. He says that because it’s gotten so expensive, it is mostly relegated to the upper classes. To what extent do you think this is true, and how does White Pines address this issue?
Ben: Albee has hit the nail on the head. We are in the midst of a sea-change in the way the performing arts exists in America. The twenty-five-year experiment of large institutions supported by robust philanthropic funding and well-heeled individual donors is ending, and with it so are the institutions themselves.
White Pines is living into this new age by creating a small community-based performance and education center which aims to pay its bills through meeting a “value proposition” it puts before the community it serves. We respond to requests from our neighbors about what they want, and we offer a lasting relationship to a group of artists—our ensemble called “Bright Invention”—who teach and perform at White Pines. Their fees are paid for by the audiences they serve, either through tuition or a box office split among performers. We offer Bright Invention ongoing training, pay for their travel, and support them in a myriad of ways that are not financial. We have been blessed with the support of a foundation for operating expenses over the last four years, so I don’t want to misrepresent us. We are still a part of the philanthropy-based ecosystem. But at least we are taking innovative steps towards a new and more nimble model, more able to pay its own way.
Do you find that people undervalue theatre compared to television and movies? In your experience, what does theatre have to offer that is unique?
Ben: I wouldn’t say people “undervalue” it, it’s just that many people haven’t had access to meaningful performances (see Mr. Albee’s observation above). When people have had the experience of a moving or hilarious theater experience, they don’t undervalue it anymore. I believe, from years of experience, that there is something fundamental to the human being which craves the shared communal experience. This is why I don’t freak out too much about electronic media. When you are in a room with other warm, breathing bodies, some of whom are delighting or provoking you with a talent that is mere feet away from you, and all of you breathe in at the same time when the actress’s eyes well up with tears, or when the clown slips on the banana, you are having a vital experience that your TV, iPhone and tablet will never, ever be able to replicate. The future of live performance is eternal, because our need for what it offers is absolute.
What deeper lessons do you think students and workshop participants learn from doing improv work?
Ben: The two basic improv rules kind of say it all: Say “yes” to what your partner offers, and take responsibility for building the story. Improv is the performance art form which most celebrates the genius of the actor. Since there is no script, everything which is created is created right in the very moment of existence, and out of the creativity of the people on stage. Seen in this light, it is not a great stretch to say that improv is a deeply humanistic celebration of our continuous unfolding potential as powerful forces of good, in every aspect of our lives. On a more basic level, improv is an extraordinary teacher of confidence, listening, empathy and faith (which is another way of saying, proceeding without knowing).
How does your faith intersect with your art?
Ben: As a Quaker, I felt like a fraud during worship until I slowly realized that God gave me gifts (like the gift of performing) and that I am called to use those gifts for good. Then the rest of my faith journey became an aspect of my creative journey, and my creative journey became an aspect of my faith journey.
I say a prayer before I go onstage: “God be with me, God be through me; I am the faucet, turn me on.” I try to inject what I call “Vitamin Q” into White Pines proceedings whenever possible (Q for Quaker). So no voting, plenty of moments of quiet, and a constant and tender attention to community, both among artists and among patrons. I try to set an example by speaking and acting with integrity all the time.
I’m sure all of the roles you have played have had a significant impact on you, but can you highlight a role that you felt had a particular transformative effect in your personal or spiritual life?
Ben: Alphonse Lebow in the Wilma Theater production of Scorched is a recent role which had a deep impact on me, because the play dealt with such brutality and then, such revelatory compassion. Truthfully, each role leaves a mark on my heart which I treasure. I just played a version of Mel Brooks in a Neil Simon comedy, and that role was deeply meaningful because I regard both Brooks and Simon as American masters and heroes, and because I hold comedy in such high esteem. And now, as a member of Bright Invention at White Pines, I get to have deep connections to characters I create with my stage partners. The characters come to life, live fully, and disappear in minutes. With the Bright Invention ensemble, It’s not so much about the characters, but about something deeper: the connections made among people.
The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and PECO have issued a grant to White Pines Productions, to support our series of performances in Elkins Park! To which we say . . . THANK YOU!
Below, Bright Invention Artistic Director Jennifer MacMillan, and White Pines Rising Leader Randi Hickey accept the "check" at the ceremony at PECO headquarters Thursday Ocotber 2nd. Notice the image of Bright Invention rehearsing displayed in back!