Honorary degree recipient finds theatre’s greatest strength is ‘connections’

Brenda DeVita, artistic director of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has spent a lifetime in the theatre — as an actor, director and administrator.

Sunday, May 15, she will receive an honorary doctor of fine arts degree and give the Commencement speech at Ripon College. The 2022 Commencement theme is “The Stories We Tell: Connecting to Our Community through Theatre.”

“The whole point and mission of theatre is to tell great stories,” DeVita says. “Stories in our lives are the ways that we connect.”

She says that in every crisis, instances of loneliness or need for community, needs have to be filled in with our experiences. “We often, when someone is having trouble, will respond, ‘I felt that way, too, when this happened to me,’” she says. “Our first instinct is to comfort them and try to understand them better by sharing our story. Studies have found that after food, shelter and water, connection is the most important thing.

“Theatre offers this incredibly safe place for people to commune together. They’re safely in their seats and they’re able to watch and experience the story on stage, take in things they understand and things they’ve never experienced. I believe theater is like a little drop of sand. Every drop of sand expands one’s understanding. That sand piles up to a tipping point, and actual change happens. That is the power of story-telling on the stage.”

American Players Theatre is one of the country’s most popular venues for theatre classics. DeVita started with the company in 1995 and has served as company manager, casting director and associate artistic director.

She says a magic thing about theatre is the communion of the audience. “I am so attuned to this massive group of humans who can all see each other and they all have an understanding as they experience the story and simultaneously as one laugh together, audibly sigh together, breathe and hold their breath together,” she says. “They are taking in someone’s stories and it’s affecting them as a connected group. We need more of these experiences in order to grow as a community and as a society.”

When artists do their job right, “some things unlock in our minds and our bodies,” she says. “There is a shifting around in someone’s heart and spirit that is not only felt, but thought about. We are aligning our inner self around something we might not know we needed.”

In theatre, she says, people are exposed to things they don’t understand and can fully consider and experience other people’s outlooks, how they are motivated and how they move through the world. “It helps us understand ourselves,” she says. “It’s a powerful way of examining ourselves and the reason we’re here, and to experience what it means to be a human being. That’s what theater allows us to do. It creates connection, it creates community, it creates an understanding of why we need to be connected. The answer to solving our problems is connections.”

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