As an undergraduate piano performance major, Amy Herzberg spent many hours practicing alone. But because she enjoyed the collaborative efforts of theater, Herzberg decided drama was something she “couldn’t live without.” She describes her involvement in theater as having no true “beginning” but rather as something that “just was.” Since then, the University of Arkansas professor of drama has been actress and director for several plays, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Doubt and Cabaret.
“In several productions I’ve been involved in, I’ve gotten letters afterwards, and people have come up to tell me that it has in some way changed their life,” she says.
Herzberg thinks of theater as a form of art that “accesses our own hearts.” Its purpose is to tell the story of what it means to be a human being, to touch lives and inspire individuals to make changes. Its subject is always humanity and often creates an emotional response in its audience whether happy or sad. As performers, “we hope to touch and open the hearts of people who are seeing theater, in a way where they can take on any aspect of what it means to be a human being and truly examine it,” Herzberg says.
She quotes playwright David Mamet, who said, “Theater is one of the last places where a group of people can come together to hear the truth.” She believes in the value of theater and that human nature has the desire to learn through story telling, especially when that story has something meaningful to say.
Herzberg also directs musical theater, combining dialogue, songs, and dance. Typically, composers of musicals follow traditional rules; others abandon these rules and are responsible for creating new advancements. “Stephen Sondheim broke, even changed many rules,” Herzberg says. “He created a whole new way to experience musical theater.”
Whether it is a musical, a comedy or a tragedy, theater “allows you to examine the truth in very difficult situations.” Being in the audience and observing the elements in a performance “you’re sitting in a communal space with other people who in their hearts are undergoing similar feelings,” she says.
Herzberg examined some of her own truths in 2008 when she starred in a play titled My Father’s War, which premiered at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark. Written by her husband, Robert Ford, the play tells the story of her father, Arthur Herzberg, and his difficult experiences in World War II. He went to see the play for several nights and would cry during the scene when a man named Bobby Harricausen was killed in the very foxhole he just stepped out of to go get their lunches. Eventually the crying lessened, and he told his daughter that it really helped him to see the play. “The fact that my father has been personally in some way made happier by something that happened in that way: I’m sure you could imagine the layers of meaning it has to me.”
In the play, she portrayed the roles of both herself and her 19-year-old father. “I’ve never had a role that required more of me or gave more back to me,” she says. “It was an amazingly special event.”