I just finished reading a novel my daughter recommended If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. It’s a novel that contains a sort of murder mystery, abuse, retribution, relationships, friendship, and family, all through the lens of a group of Shakespearean actor students whose entire lives are consumed with performance and bringing the Bard’s words to life, both on and off stage. The book surprised me at times, but also caused me to reflect about the nature of theater, performance, human nature, and personal doubt.

My first feeling when my daughter recommended this book was pride that I had successfully instilled a love of theater in my kids. We’ve been taking them to the Utah Shakespeare Festival since the mid-90s (not her, since she was born later than that). We also have taken them to several Broadway and West End shows over the years. Once my second asked me in a whining voice, “Why do you always make us go to see these plays every year?” I replied, “Because I want my kids to be able to quote Shakespeare.” The glib response I got to that was: “What, ho?” I’ve never been more proud.

All of my kids participated in various theater work in high school as a result of this exposure: show choir, tech work, and acting. One of the books I like to read in anticipation of the annual plays is Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. The book includes short essays on each of the plays, usually picking out a few of the key themes and exploring them slightly more fully.

Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves…he may teach us how to accept change in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.

Harold Bloom

Doubt, including self-doubt, is both the spark of faith, and of creativity. It is the spark of humanity. When I was 9 years old, I determined that the most important thing I could do in my lifetime was to understand people: myself and others. To understand the human condition. This is a lifelong undertaking, one that people like Victor Frankl, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and many others have contributed to, but nobody has completely cracked the code on what makes us tick. Those who attempt to understand it obtain a part of the story, and if they write, they leave some of that behind for others to build on.

Religion, like theater, is one place where these ideas are explored. Religion can also be like theater (but is not always) in enacting some of the themes of human existence through rituals. Live theater does this better, in my opinion, using language and relationships that can be interpreted and reinterpreted in new ways over time. If religion attempts to be relevant to human experience, it can only do so by acknowledging and embracing doubt as the starting point of both faith and human growth. If you don’t question, you don’t ponder your existence, you don’t attempt to understand what you are doing and why, you can’t grow. Instead you calcify in your existing state. Your relationships, including your relationship with reality and your own personal identity, remain static. Instead of having new life experiences, you have the same ones over and over, usually in a way that reinforces your existing, less mature perspective.

All literature involves the growth of characters, and for characters to grow, they must experience doubt: of themselves, of others, and of institutions. If they don’t doubt, they don’t grow. To modify E. Uchtdorf’s famous instruction: “Before you doubt your doubts, doubt your beliefs.” If Joseph Smith had never doubted his beliefs, there would be no Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If he had never doubted his own worthiness, there would have been no first vision. If he hadn’t doubted his assumptions, his mind would have been closed to ongoing revelation.

Doubt, with its capacity to challenge and frustrate, becomes a driving force behind the creation of powerful theatrical works. It pushes playwrights to confront the limitations of their craft and explore new artistic territories.”

Tennessee Williams

Without doubt in religion, all religions become more of the same. There can be no new ideas introduced that cause us to re-examine tenets that have human origins from other bygone eras. Precedent and authority can take priority over revelation. We become comforable relying on what is unreliable. We seek certainty and “rightness” which are the enemies of growth; only self-doubt and self-reflection lead to improvement, more empathy, and more Christlike behavior. There is no repentance without self-doubt, only justification and rationalization.

Good theater is unresolved and doesn’t have a single interpretation. In a recent episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, her theater critic father insults his wife’s simple interpretation of a play they’ve seen, implying that she’s just not as good at understanding theater as he is because he has seen so many subtexts and themes that went over her head. When they spot the playwright eating in the same restaurant, the wife asks him what the play was about, and he provides a simple explanation that mirrors her interpretation. The theater critic feels like a fraud and a fool for reading too much into the play, but perhaps he shouldn’t. The best authors may not be aware of every subtext in their work. Human life is complex. This is the basis for reader-response criticism, which posits that the response of the reader or viewer is a valid form of critique in understanding a work, not merely the known intent of the author. A good author evokes a response, but that doesn’t mean that the response is always fully predicted by the author.

The job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.

Arthur Miller

In our lives, we choose to forget to be curious. We forget wonder. We forget to be present, instead wasting time dwelling on past wrongs or victories. We forget that we are more than the thoughts in our heads. Social pressures and tribalism cause us to forget the humanity we all share. When we enter the theater, we the audience start in a place of shared darkness. We sit together, as individuals, and embark on a journey of reflection that the actors bring to life. The words of a great play are timeless in that they can be interpreted in myriad ways. Different emphasis or gestures can bring new meanings to life for the audience. Choices made by the director and the actors can alter the relationships between characters, even without making a single change to the written word.

We aren’t the only ones who enter the theater experience in the dark. The actors also start from a position of doubt. Live theater in particular is subject to the transformative magic of a shared experience. Actors can be surprised by nuances in the material that they didn’t expect. They can be surprised by an audience reaction or a slight shift in a scene partner’s emphasis. A play often feels different on opening night than it does on closing night. It can be completely different with a different cast or director, even if the words are the same.

The thing that makes a good performance is doubt. If you don’t have any doubt, you’re not working.

Viola Davis

The best Church experiences I have had have been those in which people have honestly expressed doubts and self-reflection. I don’t hear as much of that anymore. We seem to have forgotten where the magic happens. Perhaps that will change with different leadership in charge. Current leaders don’t seem to be that invested in these ideas and experiences; at least that’s how it appears to me. A Church experience that sparks wonder and creates human reflection would certainly be more value than one that contributes to forgetting wonder and closing our minds.

  • Do you find that your Church experience sparks wonder and self-reflection? If not, has it in the past?
  • Have you found yourself transformed by live theater?
  • Do you see a future for these ideas in the Church?
  • How do you feel about doubt as a spark for personal growth and shared humanity?