Finding Catharsis in Theatre

By Rick Westerkamp

Catharsis, dating back to the Ancient Greeks, is “the purification or purgation of emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art.” As someone who wears his emotions rather visibly, I’ve been known to tear up at the canned “getting to know Contestant X” pieces on talent-based reality TV programs, but the most palpable example of catharsis I’ve ever had was watching the musical Come From Away, which centers on the town of Gander, in Newfoundland, which took in 7,000 passengers and airline employees who were in American airspace on 9/11.

As a D.C. resident, by way of New Jersey, September 11th always holds a special place in my heart. I was in 8th grade on September 11, 2001, and the administration of my middle school decided not to tell the students any information about the day, but most of my teachers knew and their emotions read all across their faces. It wasn’t until I got home that afternoon that I even knew what had taken place. In the aftermath of this tragedy, my community banded together, my family included. We volunteered at our church, packing supplies into boxes for the first responders and firefighters at Ground Zero. My competitive dance team performed in a benefit concert at Liberty State Park, when you could still see the clouds of smoke hanging over the New York City skyline.

Fast-forward to September 2016, when I saw Come From Away at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and then again to March 2017, when I saw the same production on Broadway. Both times this show tapped into moments and feelings surrounding these events that provided a mirror to my own experiences and feelings.

In the song “Blankets and Bedding,” the characters talk about the supplies they needed, which echoed my experience of boxing up supplies. In the song “Welcome to the Rock,” the Canadian characters recall watching the news that morning and being frozen in shock at what they were watching, which reminded me of my mom meeting me at the bus stop to tell me what had happened—and my complete shock and awe in receiving that news. By the end of this song, the Canadian characters are impelled to prepare for the arriving passengers and flight crews, gathering supplies, readying spaces, etc. This call to action was as palpable on stage in 2016 as it was in New Jersey in 2001, when I watched it overtake my community in beautiful and positive ways.

When I saw Come From Away, both times, I found myself crying almost the whole way through the show because I was reliving my own experiences, thanks to mirrors throughout the show. These tears were completely unassuming, and flowed freely. I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was crying, for the most part. It wasn’t a showy emotion in the slightest.

Catharsis doesn’t always have to result in the kind of tears we expect from Meg Ryan in any number of films from her ouvre. I’m a believer that we can watch any number of emotions on the stage and feel a sense of relief from experiencing them with an audience around us, reacting to the truth of those emotions from their lives, through laughter and tears alike. It’s a moment of safety in numbers, realizing we aren’t alone in feeling what we feel.

A good example is Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays. A cycle of four plays that focus on a family in Rhinebeck, N.Y., from 2010 to 2013. each takes place during an election or a historical anniversary and presents the tension surrounding heated familial political debates. These plays resonated with me when I saw them, and still do to this day. The way the space of the room ebbs and flows as you agree, and disagree, over the course of the debate was palpable in ways comforting and disturbing in their familiarity.

The weirdness of adolescence has also been cathartic to watch onstage. Spring Awakening, both the play by Frank Wedekind from 1891 and the musical of the same name by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater from 2006, resonate with current teens and adults alike. The weird, sudden urges, the life or death crushes, and the impulsivity of that period of time are depicted onstage with truth and feverish abandon that could almost force a rage blackout of memories in even the best of us. The thirst for knowledge, longing for acceptance, and necessity to be seen as an adult were heartbreaking to watch, even as someone on the edge of thirty and just now getting the hang of this whole adulting thing. The pressure of that period of time, whether it’s to live up to your parents’ expectations for your behavior, your academics, and/or your future feels such that we would all crumble under it if transported back to that psychological landscape.

Having come out as gay in my teens, watching that experience, or watching closeted characters onstage gain the confidence to bask in their truth, is always cathartic for me. Joe Pitt from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika, engages in an affair with Louis behind his wife’s back and eventually gains the strength of character to leave his wife for the man he loves. The uncomfortability to break from the norm and accept one’s truth is so honest.

In Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, the character Howie engages in chatroom banter with an older man in condensed scenes sprinkled throughout the show, which I didn’t know other people experienced until I watched it unfold in this play. Accepting this aspect of my late adolescence and watching the character handle the murky terrain of the internet as a semi-closeted queerling allowed me to gain closure for that odd chapter of my existence.

In Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Based on a Totally True Story, Michael Sullivan engages in an impassioned stand at the Apple Store when he perceives a “Genius” is discriminating against his boyfriend on the basis of sexual orientation. I, too, have mistakenly read discriminatory shade into the unassuming questions of a service industry employee, and felt cleansing energy inhabit my body at the ability to laugh at the situation from the comfort of my seat in the audience. 

Even now, 16 years after 9/11, when I listen to the recording of Come From Away in my car, tears well up in my eyes. After they pass, I feel a lightness, like I’ve unburdened my soul. The unassuming nature of these tears and the weight off of my heart and mind encapsulate catharsis for me. Moving forward, I’m lighter than I was prior to viewing, or listening to, this theatrical experience.

Rick Westerkamp is an actor/singer/dancer and drama teacher residing in Washington, DC. He is the drama teacher in the Middle School at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, in Bethesda, MD, where he is currently in his third year of teaching. He has performed with Adventure Theatre-MTC, Constellation Theatre Company, Imagination Stage, The Keegan Theatre, Landless Theatre Company, Red Branch Theatre Company, Rep Stage, and Studio Theatre 2ndStage. He has been a cast member of multiple Helen Hayes-nominated ensembles throughout the DMV. He is a graduate of The George Washington University, where he double majored in Dance and Theatre.


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