It is true that I have not found a theatre which I wanted to jump right into active involvement with since I retired. I (we) have attended performances at several of the local theatres, but with mixed results. The famous Omaha Community Playhouse is basically a professional operation which relies on amateur talent for its casts and crews, but there are thirty-four people listed as “Staff” on their website. I don’t know how many of these may be part-time vs full-time, but I really don’t have a great desire to shift scenery or be an usher. Both are worth-while and necessary jobs, but after my career, not likely to attract a lot of interest for me. The Playhouse does pretty good work, but I feel little desire to become especially active as a volunteer.
The Theatre program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha seems to be very focused on the notion of theatre as a propaganda tool for “social justice.” Not a bad thing, I suppose, but the productions I have attended have seemed a little too “preachy” for my taste. I think theatre can be valid when mostly done for pleasure and entertainment. There really doesn’t have to be an intense socio-political message in every production. While being exposed to ideas can be pleasurable, even good, it's something which can get a bit too heavy-handed, and I don't feel that it's necessary on a constant basis. Besides, it’s hard to get involved with a University program as an "outside," retired professional.
There is a local, professional troupe, the BLUEBARN, which focuses on new works, that has done some productions of interest to me, but they seem to be a pretty “closed” shop, dealing mostly with a group of people who work together on a regular basis. Perhaps that has been necessary for their survival, but it's not something which I think I’d fit into. The Nebraska Shakespeare Festival focuses too much on making its productions, short (highly edited), cute and “fun” to interest me much. I don’t think a minimally cast (10-12 people), ninety-minute version of any of Shakespeare’s plays is likely to do that work much justice. I think one can do actual productions of Shakespeare’s plays work without excessive cutting and overly “cute” concepts, if one is willing to put in the work. Other people can do so, why can’t they? If I was going to do Shakespeare, I’d want to take a swing at the whole play with minimal cutting and an emphasis on really high production values. I’m not sure Nebraska Shakes has demonstrated that they do that, at least to me.
The most enjoyable theatre program which we have found is at a small university about 40 minutes from our house where the theatre program reminds me a bit of my earliest days at Western. There IS a theatre major, of sorts, but students from across campus are involved in productions and they are pretty well done. Sure, I can quibble about stuff which might be improved, but they seem to be really enjoying simply doing theatre, which I fully approve of, and I don’t think their productions are all that badly done. The distance, however, would make active involvement difficult, and there is the issue of interfering with the relationship between the students and their faculty.
Of course, there’s a full season of professional touring productions and concerts which come to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Omaha. And, the Omaha Symphony has a full schedule of orchestral concerts and there are major “Pop” concerts at the CHI Health Center, so there’s a LOT of stuff to go to, but prices tend to be a bit steep for our budget, the venues are a fair distance away, and parking isn’t cheap, so we tend to be pretty selective about what we plan to see, and, during the winter months, the roads can get pretty bad sometimes and, with tours, performances are not cancelled. (Anyone remember the cancelled performance of The Sound of Music in the Ramsey Center in the spring of 1987? That was one of maybe two cancelled performances in my 40+ year history at Western.)
Anyway, that means that I haven’t done any theatre since I retired at the end of the academic year in 2014, although I have attended a number of productions, professional and amateur. With a somewhat limited budget and a busy spouse, however, we don’t get to the theatre as often as might be nice, but, as I suggested, there’s also a lot of theatre around which doesn’t really excite me all that much. But I do miss the excitement of the challenge of doing theatre; of being a part of a company, of having a sense of commitment to something outside of myself which occupied my time, energy and devotion.
You see, although I hadn’t really thought about it too much until fairly recently, I have said for years that Theatre isn’t really a profession, it's an incurable disease. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it’s true. And, it would appear to be true for some others, in fields quite different from Theatre.
Some of my more recent students may remember my saying that “Theatre is the art of seeking perfection, while knowing it will never be achieved.” That is what keeps a real Theatre Person going; the drive to achieve the “perfect” performance, the one with NO mistakes, NO line flubs, NO word burgers, NO early or late cues; everything just works! Don’t all theatre people know what I mean? The performance where the cast, crew, and audience are “into” the production from the rise of the curtain until after the curtain call. Now, anyone with any sense knows that we are all imperfect humans and that’s just NOT a realistic expectation. IF it EVER happens, it certainly won't be often. But, it’s still our goal…. And, every so often, we get a just a moment, a brief second, where we can feel the audience in the palm of our hands and have the sense that this moment is about as good as it gets. I’ve had a few of those moments, and they ARE addicting; I treasure each and every one.
Then, not long ago, I went to see the movie Ford v Ferrari. (I like racing, as I've said before.) I wasn’t really expecting much except a. hopefully, enjoyable film about racing, especially since I have always thought of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which this movie focuses on, as being an unusually demanding racing challenge which I have (when I could) watched parts of on TV when I had the chance. I was blown away!
Yes, the movie is an enjoyable racing movie combined with a story of the loyalty of two friends. But what jumped off the screen at me were a few scenes which really struck home -- about Theatre! One of these was the one where Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is first introduced as part of the Ford Le Mans racing team. As part of his speech he says:
SHELBY: I was ten years old when pops said, 'Son, it's a truly lucky man who knows what he wants to do in this world. Because that man will never work a day in his life.' But there are a few, a precious few, and hell, I don't know if they're lucky or not... But there are a few people who find something that they have to do. Something obsesses them. Something that if they can't do it, well it's gonna drive them clean outta their mind. (emphasis added)
If the movie is to be believed, that thing was building cars and racing them for Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, the people the movie is really about ('cause movies are ALWAYS about people, just like plays are). But there are other people who are just as obsessed about other things, like Theatre.
I believe that’s what Theatre was for me. I’m pretty sure even my folks didn’t really understand this, although I think maybe Bonnie and the kids understood at least some of it. Theatre, for me, wasn’t just something to do. It provided meaning to my life and I HAD to do it, and to the best of my ability. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t just touch on this the one time, though.
There are a couple of other scenes later in the movie which really struck with me. Both of them involve the character of Ken Miles (Christian Bale) talking with his twelve-year-old son, Peter (Noah Jupe). In the first of these they are walking the test track and talking about how a driver has to have a “feel” for the car.
KEN: You have to be kind to the car. You feel the poor thing groaning underneath you. If you’re going to push a piece of machinery to the limit, and expect it to hold together, you have to have some sense of where that limit is.
Look out there. Out there is the perfect lap. No mistakes. Every gear change, every corner. Perfect. You see it?
PETER: I think so…
KEN: Most people can't. Most people don't even know it's out there. But it is. It's there.
When I first saw this scene in the cinema, what flashed through my mind was the idea that I believe achieving that sort of perfection is present in what I call “Theatre People.” These are the people who always strive to do their very best every second of every performance of every production, no matter how long or short the run; they strive to do their best (which may not be perfect) EVERY time, whatever they do, because anything else isn’t worth doing. They don’t really do it for the money, or for fame and acclaim; they have to do it, they can’t do anything else.
Then, a bit later in the film, shortly before he leaves to go to the Le Mans race, the high point of the movie, Ken describes driving a lap of the course for Peter, who says:
PETER: You can’t make every lap perfect.
KEN: ...No. ...But I can try.
I think it was at that point that I decided that perhaps the reason I like racing is that the challenge of racing is a lot like that of theatre production. You KNOW that perfection is impossible, but you try to achieve it anyway. I think that’s what I was “married” to in the theatre; the seeking of perfection, which, I think, is always worthwhile. In my saner moments, I know that it’s unachievable, but I always went after it, anyway. It was how I survived the “long-run” productions I was a part of. I was why I put up with long hours, lack of sleep, being tired, occasionally even working when a sane person would have been home, in bed, sick. That challenge was the disease which kept me going.
Like Steve Younkins, Sound Designer and creator of the Q2Q comics (which I highly recommend and enjoy), I am highly aware that often (especially for those of us who have been on the “tech” side of theatre) about the best we can hope for from a reviewer/critic is as shown below in Q2Q #4,
I miss not having to face that challenge to face. I think that’s what I’m trying to accept being “divorced” from. I’m doing okay, but I think I’m beginning to understand what Bonnie has meant all these years. Retiring from Theatre, for me, has been a little like getting a divorce.
The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to believe that moving to Omaha has probably made the process of being “divorced” from the Theatre easier. I had always assumed that we’d stay in Cullowhee/Sylva for, maybe, a year, while we sorted out the stuff we really didn’t need to “downsize” and to make several trips out here for house-hunting. I confess that I was a bit surprised when I retired in May, we came out to visit Maggi shortly after, ended up buying a house, closing in very early July, and moving in by the end of August. The more I think about it, while I don’t think either of us would have thought so at the time, it was quite a lot like I had lost my “first” wife, but I was so busy getting ready to move that I didn't really have time to notice my "loss." I was simply having to deal with the practical concerns of moving, etc.
So, while it was a bit like a divorce, it was also a bit like the death of my “first” wife. It was a bit of a shock, but the business of moving and getting settled and having to start over in a new place involved, I guess, accepting that my old life was over, and I that had to learn how to function in a new situation. I’m not positive that that process is complete yet, but, by now, while I miss my old life at times, I know that the time had come for me to move on to a new phase of my life. I can now look back at that life with fond memories and few regrets. It’s taken some time to get to this point, but I’m making progress. Of course, having a "second" wife has helped a lot!
We usually go to the pool a couple of times a week for Aquasize classes which keeps me moving, at least some. We go to the local art museum, the natural history museum, the botanical gardens, and the world-famous zoo several times a year. I read a good deal for pleasure; I’ve almost always got at least one book going. After years of focusing, primarily, on professional reading (scripts, papers, texts, tests, etc.), I can now just read what I choose to read. Of course, I do still read a fair amount relating to what one might call “Shakespeare Studies.” Whenever I go into the local bookstores, I tend to check out the Shakespeare section just I case there’s something which looks interesting. I also tend to check out stuff related to the Salem Witch Hunt of 1692, as I have a personal interest in that episode. Of course, I usually check out the mysteries and other fiction, as well. There's also quite a nice public library in Omaha.
I spend a lot of time collecting material for use in this blog, and I spend a fair amount of time developing ideas for possible, future use. After I come up with an idea that I think MIGHT be worth writing a post about, I usually go through several drafts and revisions before I actually post something. (I can hear my former BFA thesis students laughing.) But, see, guys, I want to be as careful about actually saying what I want to in these posts as I expected you to be in your theses. I tried to never demand anything from a student which I didn’t expect of myself. If I expect YOUR best, I have to at least try to produce MY best.
I’m also an active member of the Omaha Sherlockian Society, which involves some careful reading and research related to whichever story we are discussing in a given month. Then, Bonnie and I belong to a couples’ dinner group through her involvement with the New Neighbors League of Omaha. I’m also much more likely to go with her to the store than I used to when I was working all of the time. So, I keep reasonably busy. I think I’m going to be fine! I do miss the Theatre, but I’m learning that I CAN live without it, even if I can only stay “involved” by occasionally reading “Stage Directions” magazine. I think I’m surviving my "divorce" pretty well. I'm going to be fine, but I’m not pushing it too hard!