SPARKED: Christopher Cartmill, Professor of Theater

Mason Gross School artists discuss the elements that fuel their work

I was born not far from the Flint Hills of Kansas and raised pretty much always near the farmland and grasslands of the Great Plains. The landscape of our childhood shapes in no small way how we see the world—how we perceive distance, light and color, sound, even the people we meet. Fields as far as the eye can see encourage the eye to seek horizons. What might appear to be endlessly the same can change dramatically if you have the patience to wait for it.  A summer day in a field can cultivate a keenness for contrast—yellow waving wheat against a bluer-than-blue expanse of sky. Flat from a distance is rolling up close, and flat isn’t always dull. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it is about how carefully you look.

I love rehearsals. I love the process of discovery. In German they use the word probe (to investigate), the Italian is provare (to prove or try), and in French it is répétion (to repeat). Each word reveals a different value. The root of the English word rehearsal is not (as one might expect) “to re-hear.” The root of the word comes from “to harrow”—to dig up or turn up the ground for planting. So when we rehearse we are turning up the ground again and again for new ideas to be seeded. 

I agree with the character in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, who says, “Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” I don’t think it should be just once. And I like to take friends and students to experience plays in a language that they do not know. You can, if you get over your own frustrations at not understanding the words, hear the words beyond words. 


I love to be read to. I love to hear other voices. To step into the mind of another is an amazing experience. It happens in the humanities. I’ve had an extraordinary time translating and directing the works of different writers. By diving into their writing, I can observe how she or he observes. I’ve translated works by Voltaire and George Sand. It was like having a conversation with them. I directed a play by Lope de Vega. His energy and spirit and the spirit of his time is infused in that work. It is palpable.


My father gave me a small leather-bound copy of the book when I was preparing to leave for college. On Innocence appeared in 1789 and On Experience in 1793. The poems encapsulate the Age of Revolution. What my father said is that they would speak to my own age of revolution. We are living in an extraordinary moment not unlike the years in which Blake was writing and having visions. I often quote a line from Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (set in the Romantic era). Valentine says, “It is the best possible time to be alive when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” 


I am particularly moved by the AIC. It was while doing a performance residency at the Art Institute that I was introduced to the work and writing of the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. Reading his journals was transforming. He spoke to me—to what felt like only me—from across time. It doesn’t matter that I don’t paint: He taught me what it was like to work with passion and rigor. He spoke of my fears and frustrations. He taught me that to make the green seem greener place beside it a touch of red. That applies to many things besides painting.

Teatro Valle is a beautiful 18th-century theater in Rome. Mozart played there. The operas of Rossini and Donizetti premiered there. The world first saw Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author on its stage. In the economic crisis of the last few years, the theater was about to be sold off to private development. The designers and actors took it over. They’ve occupied it for the last three years and made it into a focus for art and the community. They believe in art as a community resource. Culture is as essential as water or air. “Com’è triste la prudenza!”  (How sad to be so cautious!): That is written on a banner over the audience at Teatro Valle. 

Listen to the mandolin artist Chris Thile. Experience the mastery and the sheer joy of playing. 

It is an old adage that by your students you are taught. I am constantly inspired, tested and surprised by what the students give. I should be. Teaching makes me a better artist. We are here to challenge one another.

Posted September 2014

To learn more about Christopher Cartmill, click here.