We sometimes watch various programs on PBS (we can get PBS programming from TWO different states [Iowa AND Nebraska], which gives us quite a broad spectrum and a variety of broadcast schedules). I was, understandably enough, I suppose, particularly interested in some of the programs which were broadcast related to the “rebirth” of Broadway theatre after the trials of the COVID pandemic. One of these was a “Great Performances” program called “Keeping Company with Sondheim,” which discussed the closing of the newly revised production of Company, just a few days before it’s scheduled “official”opening, and which then waited 600 days to officially “open.”
Christopher Fitzgerald, who played David, discussed his experience through the time of being closed and the pre-reopening. I think he said something rather profound about his experience which sheds some light on the meaning of doing theatre for many of us who have spent much of our lives in the service of that art. He said,
It was like a death, it was. It was. It was like, it was, it was a death of our connections, our,
you know it is the…. Being in a room with a group of people and telling a story is so
elemental to being human and to just like strip that in the moment of its happening was
like, it felt like a death to me, and I think to a lot of us. And so, it really feels like coming
back to life.
I think I understand that feeling, even though I’m no longer actively involved in producing theatre. The end (closing) of a show was always a bit of a “downer,” even if you were moving directly onto another one, as I did most of the time (and, sometimes, even before the current production actually closed). Just the idea of having a show in limbo for such an extended period of time, had to be excruciating.
Of course, Broadway (and the rest of the theatre world) has more, or less, managed to reopen after the worst depths of COVID, but I do strongly identify with Kristen Chenoweth when she gave a brief “curtain speech” at the reopening of Wicked on Sept. 14, 2021. Her first words were, as she stepped out in front of the (closed) curtain were; “There’s no place like home.” I think she expressed a feeling many theatre people were having about that time, and since.
While I’m discussing “theatre” quotes, a long time ago (sometime around 1970, as I remember it) I encountered the statement that; “Acting is the art of making an audience believe that real things are happening to real people.” I confess that, at that time, I was quite unsure that I believed that. In fact, I still think that not ALL acting necessarily has to have this as its ultimate aim, as not ALL theatre is about “human-seeming” characters, nor need it be. However, thinking about this led me to decide that the statement might be more correct if it read; “Theatre is the art of making an audience understand that the imaginary reality of the stage can help us to better understand the actual reality of real life.”
I suppose that that quibble is at least partially the result of my work in children’s theatre where characters may be animals or other fantastic beings, and I don’t mean to deny the commitment to honesty which is ALWAYS necessary in acting, but it IS hard to think of a squirrel, for example, as a “real people.” I also don’t think that Theatre is the only art which creates an artificial reality which reflects on “real” life, but I do think it is an important one. And that it was important enough to devote much of my life to it. And I am NOT (at least in my mind) in any way limiting the idea of Theatre to just acting.
I think the notion of assisting an audience to better understand “real” life must be a part of every mind engaged in the creation of theatre. That’s why I enjoyed the idea of having computers, etc., to assist in the control of lighting, sound, etc., as a part of live performance, but was always nervous about “automating” the performance too much, even on the technical side. I firmly believe that if theatre becomes too “mechanized,” “computerized,” or, otherwise lacking the emotional commitment of all of its creators each time it is created, it will cease to truly be theatre. It MIGHT be worthy of our attention, but it won’t be “Theatre.”
Some of my former students will probably remember my saying that; “Theatre is an art of pursuing perfection, in the face of the certain knowledge that it will never be achieved.” I don’t believe that I ever claimed that that was an original thought of mine, or that I was unique in feeling that way, but it IS an idea of which I have been fond for a long time. Needless to say, when I encounter a statement which seems to be closely related to this notion expressed by someone more eloquently than I think I ever achieved, I have tried to take note of it, so here are a couple of quotes which, I think, may help make this point more clearly than I have.
On CBS’ “Sunday Morning” a while ago the architect, Frank Gehry spoke about his idea of “creative insecurity.” He described this creative insecurity as a constant questioning—looking for ways to bring a fresh perspective, new idea, or different angle to the work. The reporter suggested that as he listened, he thought of the concept of having a “beginner’s mind,” which he described as a Zen Buddhist concept that maintains that only when you are a true beginner can you really learn anything. Through that lens, we discover without the weight of preconceived beliefs and thoughts. There is an openness to embrace something novel and the courage to take a journey.
It was suggested that Gehry’s creative insecurity didn’t seem to come from a tenuous place of fearing the unknown or of thinking little of himself, but from a place of wanting more to be revealed. That even as a master or expert in our field, we can approach situations with a beginner’s mindset. That constant questioning is a mainstay of curiosity, which leads to a creative impulse to seek out new information and experiences. I can’t be sure, but I think that’s much the same thing as my notion of seeking perfection while knowing that it won’t be achieved.
Peter Hall, the British director, in his book, Making an Exhibition of Myself, discussed the impact of theatre on a person’s life. Among the many things he said, he noted that,
The theatre keeps you humble and it keeps you young; you learn your job to the very end,
and always feel unsure with every new job: 'Can I still do it? Shall I be found out?'
Ralph Richardson defeated the fears; he liked long runs: he was able to go on practising.
He often told me that he loved the nightly expectation of going down to the theatre. He
felt like a woodcarver trying to repeat an ever more delicate decoration. He would re-carve
his performance each night, making it a little finer, a little more economical. Some nights,
the knife would slip and he would spoil a whole section. He knew that perfection was
impossible, but the important thing was to continue carving. If the run was happy, the
carving would improve, though the improvement might be hardly discernible from
performance to performance.
Well, I’ve rambled on for long enough for now. Having reached my elder days, I’d like to think that at least some of what I have learned and thought about through my life might be useful to some others. I hope that’s the case. If it’s not, I accept that I should have followed Yoda’s advice: “If Stupid You Are, Speak You Should Not” and I’ll try to do better in the future.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows