I’m almost near the end of my string of quick switches. After finishing up my show in New Hope, I landed back in my apartment for a whopping 30 hours – enough time to repack my suitcase, go on a Caribbean dance party cruise on the East River (highly recommended), and sleep once in my own bed – before heading upstate to visit family for two weeks. After that, I arrived back home on a Sunday evening ahead of starting rehearsals for a two-week workshop on Tuesday morning. Right now, I’m starting the second week, which ends on Sunday – and then have rehearsals for my next show starting on Monday.
This is hardly a complaint. Maximizing time with family and having jobs booked back-to-back is pretty much the ideal. But it can be a little hectic, and specifically, it didn’t give me a chance to really unload about my time back upstate.
I’ve made my professional career in theatre, and I love it. I’ve made my home in New York City, and I love it. But what made me into who I am was the local theatre scene where I grew up.
The first professional show that I ever saw was the national tour of Meet Me In St. Louis at Proctor’s. I have no fucking clue why we went to see Meet Me In St. Louis. Probably because I was finally old enough to attend a Real Show, it was there, and it was age-appropriate. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it, but, judging by the results, it was a positive experience. For living as literally in the middle of the woods as we did – they still don’t offer cable to our area, there’s not enough people – it is amazing to think that we have a huge national touring house just a 25-minute drive away. As a kid, I had no idea how lucky I was to have Proctor’s. I do now. I was able to see so many professional productions of current theatre. I was able to see the touring casts of shows that I had seen on Broadway. I was able to talk to people who did “the real thing” at the stage door, see that they were just other people.
(In a “small world, isn’t it” moment, I once struck up a conversation with a man I met while I was running through the park near my apartment. We’d come together in common cause when we’d both spotted another man lying unresponsive on the path in an ambiguous context and been concerned, and he hadn’t had his phone on him, so I called 911. He recognized the theatre logo on my this-was-somewhere-I-worked t-shirt, and we, of course, discovered mutual acquaintances via becoming Facebook friends. And in hindsight, I am pretty dang sure that I saw him as Javert at Proctor’s when I was a kid.)
It wasn’t just the big professional shows, though. After having been hooked by my grandmother’s vinyl cast recordings and my mom’s Premiere Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection on CD (which could only be played on the high-tech stereo system in the house), my favorite time each year would be mid-spring: high school musical season. My grandmother would save the listings in the newspaper for me, and I’d plan out our viewing itinerary. And that was how I got to know so much of the musical canon. I saw Grease when I was way too young and really didn’t understand why I was told not to sing “Greased Lightning” in public or to call somebody a hooker, but I wasn’t really a rebel, so I just went with it. I saw too many productions of The King & I that never should have happened the way that they did. (You know why.) I saw Annie Get Your Gun with a cast of upwards of 50 people, all under the age of 18, because everyone who auditioned was given a role. I saw The Goodbye Girl. Who sees The Goodbye Girl?!
There was also life outside of high school. I accompanied a friend’s highly inappropriate audition for a local production of Blood Brothers. It was inappropriate merely due to the fact that both of us were no more than ten years old, but they were very impressed that she brought her own accompanist. That audition was for the Schenectady Light Opera Company, which was another vital part of my childhood arts exposure, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Follies to The Robber Bridegroom. I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the productions that I saw there – there are a few wisps of memory floating around, but the moments are too insubstantial, more impressions than images, to be described to another in words – but the proof is in the peas pudding and saveloys.
As I got older and finally reached the fifth grade, I began participating in shows myself. My summers were filled with NYSTI theatre camp and performing with the Timothy Murphy Playhouse in the incipient years of its revival. (Shout-out to mom for driving me back and forth between the absolute opposite ends of the capitol region within the same day.) It’s no small or coincidental thing, I think, that a number of us who were doing community theatre out in the central New York farmland, with the five-minute set changes and completely illegal script changes, are now in the field professionally, in New York City and all across the country. One might view that as basis for saying “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up in the theatre.” But for whatever challenges the shapes of our lives might bring us, just from superficial observation, I’d say that we’ve all managed to end up pretty darn happy and fulfilled, and via bringing happiness and fulfillment to others.
If you don’t mind negotiating the poverty line, it’s not such a bad deal.
I saw two local shows while I was home this July, both of them free productions presented outdoors in a park, one of them an 100% amateur Fiddler on the Roof by the Not So Common Players and the other non-union/semi-professional Ragtime by Park Playhouse.
I had actually first seen Fiddler at Park Playhouse many, many years ago (back when they, too, worked on much more of a local, amateur model), and I’m sure that I’ve seen at least one high school production, as well as having spent my childhood listening to the DIY vinyl-to-cassette transfer of the cast recording that, like most of my other cast recordings of similar make, was imperfectly done, although I’m pretty sure that at least the ending got onto this one. (In contrast, I didn’t know the ending to Cats for years, although I was able to deduce for myself that “Skimbleshanks” didn’t actually occur four times within the show.) The long and short of it is that I know that show pretty well, but even so, every time that I experience it, I’m stunned by how amazingly good it is. The structure is efficient without ever feeling rushed. There isn’t a wasted moment. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. And it also can be well done on a wide range of production levels. I still regret having missed seeing the choreography of the recent Broadway revival, but as long as you have some people (not even all of them!) who can hit notes and the story is played truly, you have a show. And while there might have been a couple slightly lingering scene changes and while maybe “L’Chaim” didn’t exactly hit the rafters and while also I’m still a little mystified by some of the lighting design choices, I’m also tearing up right now just thinking about the scene of Tavye rejecting his daughter Chava. The three elder daughters were played by actual teenagers, which was striking in a way that watching a professional twenty-something isn’t. According to his program bio, the very-much-adult man playing the Constable was making his stage debut – and as heartwarming that is under any circumstances, how much more so for telling a story about community and the ways that a community is tested from both inside and out, where the last image we see is of a family that we have come to love becoming refugees?
If Fiddler on the Roof felt particularly timely, how much more so did Ragtime. I’d seen the show a couple times before, a national tour and a community production, and I’d left both of those feeling like the show was more effective as a sing-along album than something actually brought to life onstage. Save for a couple of missed mic cues and a slightly undersized (but still large) ensemble, this production convinced me otherwise. I’m not sure how much of it was the production itself, how much of it was the world, and how much of it was just me being older and less naïve. My bets are on “all of the above.” While I have huge dramaturgical issues with the last minute of the show – literally, the last minute – it also highlighted to me how many minefields are navigated successfully, how much the show gets right.
It truly was public theatre in the park, as during Act One, there were several people holding out for a hero. At a couple different points from the halfway part onward, shrieks erupted from the seats in the middle of the amphitheater, which at first were assumed to be obnoxious audience members not paying attention to the show and having their own little social event. As it turns out, some genius had brought their pet sugar glider to the show and, quelle surprise, guess who got loose. Something like that could leave a worse taste in your mouth than the bug spray that the man sitting right behind me on the hill decided to spray on before the show – with, of course, the spray directed forward onto his arms and, consequently, directly toward my head. But at intermission, it was announced that the sugar glider had been corralled and was back safe with its owner.
But the open aspect turned into something particularly thrilling with the huge cheer that erupted from the crowd – all of us there, out in the park, in our own city – after Younger Brother’s damning accusation leveled at Father in Act 2: that someone in a position of comfortable privilege who, without any sense of history or humanity, declares the preeminence of respect for laws and institutions only when it allows for their life to remain undisturbed is someone who is unseeing and, worst of all, complacent, and that is someone to be despised.
The production’s take on Younger Brother was actually not one that I had seen before, and I loved it. The character is a young man from a wealthy white family who is anxiously in search of something to give purpose to his empty life. The other times that I’d seen it, Younger Brother had been quite dashing, a handsome and charming revolutionary waiting to be born. This time, however, he was almost painfully awkward and the sort of guy whom you might find kind of off-putting. I was stunned by how much more sense it made with the text of the show – and by how powerful it made his aforementioned outburst at Father, which I think might have been the first time that he’d actually made eye contact with the man. In “What He Wanted to Say,” he wasn’t just fantasizing his words to the musician-turned-insurrectionist Coalhouse Walker; he also briefly physically became, in his mind (and onstage for the audience), the handsome and charming revolutionary that is often played as reality. Not only was this effective for the arc of that one character, it also reduced the character’s potential White Male Savior-ness within the overall fabric of the show. What better outcome could there be than benefit to both the individual and the whole?
On top of these fantastic theatrical experiences in the outside world, I also had a change of pace in commuting by car rather than connected to a digital device, whether that was at home with my computer or on the go with an iPod. Because what this meant was listening to music on CDs. As much as I love a well-curated playlist and the re-discovery that accompanies putting a full library on shuffle, an album exists in its original order for a reason. Particularly with a cast recording, where listening to a full album brings you through the journey of the show and its story. Screlting along with numerous show albums over the course of those weeks, I often was caught off-guard by swells of emotion and my eyes welling up with tears as I couldn’t help but feel the stories being expressed by these songs.
It’s always a little funny because I’m rather unsentimental in day-to-day life. But perhaps my unsentimental relationship with life is what causes me to enjoy experiencing that in stories, those vectors of experiences other than our own. I relish the opportunity to be blasted with earnest emotion that honestly serves a heightened journey to somewhere that is not me.
And it was a certain kind of wonderful to go home to go there.