What is theater? I mean, really, at its core, what is it? How do you teach a room full of students who may have no experience with theater how do to it…and do it well? More importantly to me, how to do it in a life-giving way?

Ask a hundred people, “What is theater?” and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Ask a thousand, a thousand. Ask a million…well, you get the point. The point is theater is difficult to define. It’s more complex and nuanced than any one definition or explanation. Personally, there’s something uniquely beautiful about that.

So, Shelton…are you going to tell us your definition of theater in this post?

Yes. Of course…aaaafffftttteeeerrrr I share some other things first. 🙂 [Or you can just skip to the end…]

I believe part of my responsibility in this vocation of theater education is to help build a collaborative community through service and example. In my mind, theater is a brave space to risk, to fail, to grow to develop excellence in theater and in ourselves.

Excellence in training up powerful, life-giving storytellers who, “enter to learn and leave to serve” is predicated on being able to answer SIX questions. Those questions are:

  1. What is Theater?
  2. What is Community?
  3. What is Culture?
  4. What is Excellence?
  5. What are our Goal(s)?
  6. What is our Story?

In order to continue to grow a community rooted in authenticity, in healthy communication, in meaningful collaboration and life-affirming excellence these questions have to be asked and have to be answered; and as you can imagine the answers should be grounded in the aspirations of the community AND individually what you bring to the community. Being able to answer and define these six questions forms the foundation on which a healthy community is built.

So, what is theater? Like I said, it’s hard to define AND I promised before ending this post I would so…here we go…

I’d like to start with this. TRUST matters in our work. An environment without trust can not produce the sparks needed to transform words on a page into a living, breathing collaboration with other human beings. It’s not possible. Trust must exist in our work and in my singular experience, I’ve found building trust begins with me. It begins with my own authenticity, humanity and mentor relationship with each of my students. The more I pour into a personal relationship with them, the more likely we are to build a community of trust as artists.


And when there’s trust, the magic will happen.

You still haven’t directly answered the question, Shelton!

Theater, at its most basic level, is the art of telling a story through enactment. Notice how I used both “art” and “story”. For me, both of these exist in the craft of theater. However, for today’s post I’d like to tweak this definition just a bit by asking the question in a different way. “What is good theater?” Because that’s really what I’m trying to get at with my students. I don’t want them simply to, “do theater”. I want them to be good at it. So, in Mr. S’s class, “What is good theater?”

I’ll define it like this, with recognition going to Bruce Miller and his work, The Actor as Storyteller. Good acting, [I’ll expand this to ‘theater’] is telling a believable and engaging story in a believable and engaging way which connects people together.

That first portion, “Good acting [theater] is telling a believable and engaging story in a believable and engaging way”, is a re-wording of Bruce Miller’s definition. The second portion is a part of my philosophy as an educator and artist. 

Theater is magic. There’s something sacred about a group of strangers coming together in a dark theater, sitting elbow to elbow, and sharing in a communion of story and connection. Something you can’t get from a screen. Something living, breathing  and vaporous, a flash of sparkle gone in an instant never to exist again.  

Theater is magic. Being a good storyteller isn’t going to get us to Mars or solve global poverty. It will however transform hearts and minds and maybe, just maybe help connect people to each other and to the human experience in a way that inspires change and action, builds empathy and gives a little meaning to all of this in the first place. There’s a quote written in chalk hanging in our kitchen. Put there by my breath-taking wife…

What if the point is not to know as much as possible, but to feel as much as possible?

Theatre is magic. Theater has the power to make a positive difference in the world. Theater, at its best, can change lives. I’ve seen it in countless students and audience members during my years of teaching. 

Theater can change lives. 

So for me, good theater is defined as something more than just a good story. It’s defined as growth and collaboration and community and history and tradition and service and purpose. 

 What is it for you?