You’re An Actor, Harry: Magic As Theatrical Allegory

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“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both influencing injury, and remedying it,” (“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows,” 2007).

The day I turned nine I opened a book that I was given by my mother. At the bottom of the title page, she had written: “May you know firsthand the true magic of living.”

That book was the first installment of the now immortal Harry Potter series; a literary innovation significant to my generation’s history, to an almost religious degree. Many people have inferred their own interpretation of the seven-part narrative since its inception, but one interpretation has dawned on me recently. I’ve realized that the magical world to which my millennial generation was introduced in our formative years takes on another meaning when you grew up as a part of one of the proudest subcultures of American youth: Theatre Kids.

When I began reading J.K. Rowling’s coming-of-age epic I was at a point where I felt fundamentally different from other children my age, mostly because I was a Theatre Kid. I knew show tunes better than any pop album, I wrote one-act-plays at recess rather than playing tee-ball, and I had to explain my costume to my peers at Halloween when I came to school dressed as a Sondheim character. This feeling of difference began to change once I met other theater enthusiasts my age after I started a fine arts undergraduate program in 2008. I got my acceptance letter via Gmail rather than owl, but like the titular boy wizard, I did go from feeling like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I entered a school where everyone was aware of a kind of magic that I could never explain to those in my old school. I was welcomed into a unique community, defined by its members’ ability to create. It’s only years later that I now see the similarities between the culture of witchcraft & wizardry and the culture of theatre & dance.

When you study theater, everyone studying with you has differing levels of previous exposure to their surroundings. I, as the child of two theater professionals, would have been a “pureblood,” while the kids who had only discovered the joy of being in a play the year before college were more “muggle-born.” The house rivalry found at Hogwarts school mirrored allegiances some of us had for our specific theater concentrations. Come to think of it, the designated house qualities of courageous emotion, patient loyalty, studious intelligence and ostentatious charisma actually befitted legitimate theater actors, techies, theater studies/history students and musical theater actors, respectively. Fear was no longer something to be avoided, but faced head-on, in front of peers, faculty, and strangers. On your first day of class, you may not have been asked to stand in front of a bogart that contained your deepest fear, but the instructions of “Come in on Monday and do something in front of everyone that scares you, actors have no inhibitions” wasn’t too different. The use of language, precision of words’ sounds and linguistic meaning that you usually took for granted were treated as sacrosanct on stage (“It’s LeviOsa!”).

summer camp for theater kids… by damianblake

The most palpable similarity between magic and theater, though, was also the most important: This world was ours. The theatrical muggles in the audience or who dormed with us may have had a cursory understanding of what this world was about; a lucky few may have been our relatives or paramours, but you had to be one of those who practiced this magic themselves to truly know what having these powers entailed.

As our education continued, a further parallel to be found between magic and theater was the exposure to its varieties. By the fourth Harry Potter installment, the audience learns that magic is an international skill and exists in numerous cultures. Just as Bulgarian and French magic folk came into Harry’s story, we Theater Kids learned how the medium looked throughout the world. Bunraku, Kathakali, Wayang. Different incantations, different instruments, all casting the same spell on the audience. Learning about how theater enthralled people thousands of miles away showed us that this magic held the same potency everywhere, no matter the method.

We also became more aware of the element of competition as we continued our study. Like Harry’s rivalry with wizards in the fourth volume, we were in competition for stage time with haughty New Yorkers, deep South transplants, mellow West-coasters, and foreign exchange students. We all came in with different life perspectives but equal talents and dreams. We lived in an artistic microcosm, but our members brought their knowledge and desire to create from different sources. Actors’ abilities were challenged through our similarities and our differences.

In the years since I graduated another allegory between the real world and that born of J.K. Rowling’s mind has made itself clear. Starting this year, an era is beginning where the new generation of artists is relearning what previous generations already knew: Art is resistance. The American millennial faction is currently seeing an assault on free speech and creative expression, the likes of which we have been lucky enough to have never seen before. It has ignited the use of their magic in order to fight back, like the students in the Potter lore.

We are now living under an attempted despot who exalts the virtues of purity of birth, who thrives in drawing power from sycophantic hosts with no will of their own. Like Voldemort,  many of us are disgusted just to say his name. As we reminisce on the story that informed our childhood, new ways emerge in which we can use its characters’ love, bravery and acumen to inspire our own, against a more realistic Dark Lord.

Words inform, music familiarizes, and entertainment calms. We seek to quiet fear and inspire action. We can now emulate, rather than just cheer on, the childhood heroes we read about.

As Dumbledore said: “It is important to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated” (“Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince,” 2005).

Such words from the greatest wizard of all time don’t sound too different from what we were told by our elders this past November. This is because some things are undeniably real, whether in a children’s fantasy world or in our own. If the adage of life imitating art still rings true, I expect to see my fellow Theater Kids continuing to grow and fight, using what we learned from our-no-longer-secret magical world.

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Bonner Demling

Bonner Demling would list her other online article credits here, but she doesn’t have any yet. She is, however, a member of the “Sketchprovcast” team, whose episode list can be found under the podcast section of this very site. So if you’re looking for anything else, that’s your lead.

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