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Missing the Theater

March 9, 2021

When my father was a young man, I am told, he always kept a folded-up $50 bill in his wallet in case he lucked into a performance of a play. A professor in the drama department at Southeast Missouri State University while I was growing up, he got me tickets to every play they put on, four plays a year. I sat through Shaw’s Misalliance when I was too young to really enjoy it and turned up for every performance of Once Upon a Mattress during its two-weekend run. While still in middle school, I took a friend to see the performance of Man of La Mancha that my father directed, and there was evidently criticism from that friend’s parents about how appropriate it was for girls that age to see the rape scene (when Aldonza is dragged back to what men at the inn see as her place in the world after being treated as “Dulcinea”).

On family trips, we visited theaters, and when we could make it to New York or London we would see a matinee in the afternoon and then an evening performance. On one memorable occasion I thought I had gotten tickets for nine people for an evening performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the new Globe Theatre in London, only to find out that I had actually purchased tickets for a performance that began at 23:59 (midnight). We’d been in London for less than a week, so we had no idea what time it was anyway; we went and enjoyed it–but I was glad I’d bought seats (on a previous trip to the new Globe we’d tried being groundlings).

On our last trip to London we saw a matinee of Wolf Hall and an evening performance of Bring Up the Bodies at London’s Aldwych theatre. My mother was in a wheelchair, so Ron and Eleanor and I arranged for special access to get her to the dress circle on the second level, where we had tickets. The Aldwych is an old theatre, with narrow aisles and seats, and at the intermission, the young woman who had been helping us, Emer, arranged for me and my mother to sit in a box on the same level, where we’d be more comfortable. The box seats hadn’t sold, she told us, so it was okay to give access to someone in a wheelchair and one “carer,” which was me, with my extra-wide hips (there were chairs without armrests in the box). Emer also told us that the week before, Steven Hawking sat in that box.

Both of us enjoyed the box seat. Even though its view of the stage wasn’t quite as expansive, we could look right down on the heads of the actors. It made a show with a fairly intimate point of view—Cromwell’s own—feel even more intimate. We’d all read the books, but even so we were spellbound, watching the events unfold on stage (for more details see Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). The plays are well-adapted (Mike Poulton) and directed (Jeremy Herrin of the Royal Shakespeare Company), so if you enjoyed the books I think you’d enjoy the plays. I’m still waiting anxiously for the third one to open onstage and hoping we can get back to London when it does.

Of course we’re all waiting for anything to open again onstage. It’s a strange intermission in a long life of play-going, this pandemic pause. Even in central Ohio I was used to at least four plays a year at Kenyon, plus occasional musicals, trips to Columbus and Chicago for touring shows and what had become an annual trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival each fall.

Because live theater was always a part of my life, I didn’t think that much about its effect until it was gone. I’ve watched plays and musicals online in the last year; yesterday I watched a play on a zoom link sent to me after I registered with Remote Theater. (the play was The Art of Sacrifice by Anthony Clarvoe). I watched it alone in my living room. Why would it have made a difference to see it with one or two other people in a big room surrounded by strangers? It’s not just the conversation at intermission and afterwards. It’s sharing the experience, seeing and hearing other people gasp or tear up or shuffle around awkwardly in their seats. Personally, I’m not sorry to have a more comfortable seat, because I have indelible memories of live theater experiences marked by the pain of my hips squeezed by the sides of the seat and my knees digging into the back of the seat in front of me. But this play wasn’t a shared experience; I could have just turned it off, and who would have known? I could have shouted back at some of the dialogue, and who would have cared?

In a quiet theater, everyone can hear you scream. I miss that dramatic potential! I miss dressing up “to show respect for the theater” as my father always said. I don’t miss the ticket prices and the predominantly gray-haired audiences. What do you miss? How do you think theater might change when it does come back?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2021 4:21 am

    I hope that when we can go back to the theater we will value it more, as I do all kinds of in-real-space-and-time interactions now. I hope our fears of the danger that can arise through human interaction will not obliterate our will to work through those interactions to a stronger sense of our true humanity. For me, that is what theater is all about.

    • March 10, 2021 11:02 am

      Maybe we’ll value the experience itself more? I won’t value it more in terms of being willing to pay higher prices. I won’t be as desperate to see the shows I’ve only imagined as I listened to the soundtrack because some of them have been filmed and are available for the private online experience. It may well be that I’ll value the experience of being in “the room where it happens” a lot more, although that won’t wedge me back into some of those too-small seats.

      • March 10, 2021 1:37 pm

        I didn’t mean paying higher prices, I meant valuing the experience. Filmed performances are wonderful to have, for sure, but I’ll be more appreciative when I do have the chance to see a show in person. The feeling in the room can be electric. Too-small and uncomfortable seats would really ruin the pleasure, though!

        • March 10, 2021 1:51 pm

          I was pretty sure I knew what you meant, but was thinking that the free and “donations accepted” online performances have also made me think about “valuing” the theater.
          I am larger (both taller and fatter) than most Americans and have an artificial knee that doesn’t bend back as far as it should, so it’s not unusual that seats are too small for me. I think it should be less usual, though.

  2. Lemming permalink
    March 9, 2021 7:49 am

    A local Catholic high school is offering a production of Newsies at the end of April. If I’ve gotten my shots by then, which seems possible, I’m very tempted to attend, suitably masked. I miss theater, too.l

    • March 10, 2021 11:04 am

      My youngest child was a big fan of the soundtrack to Newsies, so when it came through Chicago we took him (by then he was less of a fan, but it was still fun). It seems the right kind of show for a high school, and wonderful to anticipate!

  3. March 9, 2021 7:56 am

    I miss the theater terribly, and I regret that I didn’t follow my instinct in 2019 and make a trip to New York to see friends and Hadestown. Foolish Jenny! Had I but known! Seeing live theater is one of my very very favorite things — like, agh, Six was supposed to have its big Broadway run last year! I wanted to hear about everyone having so much fun seeing Six!

    • March 10, 2021 11:07 am

      Foolish indeed, to miss the chance to see Hadestown. That was one of the best theater experiences of my life, even though the seats in the Walter Kerr theater were quite uncomfortably small.
      And yes, absolutely, Six was the next show I was listening to the soundtrack for and longing to see how it was played.

  4. March 11, 2021 4:14 pm

    Lovely post! There is nothing that can quite replicate the magic of live theater- you are mesmerized in your seat and you feel like you are participating with the cheers and the applause. Of course, dressing up for the evening out is the icing on the cake. I hope people value the performing arts more once the pandemic is behind us. You were fortunate to be exposed to theater from a young age.

    • March 11, 2021 4:23 pm

      You definitely are participating–with cheers and applause, with breathing the same air, and often with feeling you are in a room with people who like some of the same things you like. The feeling in the theater in Chicago where I saw Mean Girls was very different from the feeling in the theater in New York where I saw Kinky Boots, for instance.
      Yes, I was fortunate. Where I lived, some kids had pools they could share with their friends. I had theater tickets to share.

  5. March 12, 2021 7:12 pm

    One of my favorite international experiences was a road trip from Edinburgh to London with my older cousins and their book club in 2012. We stopped in Stratford for two nights and saw the RSC production of Measure for Measure.

    It was like watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, with a 50 Shades twist to the costumes (think business suits and fishnet stockings). They even ended with a Tudor-meets-Rocky-Horror dance sequence.

    I personally love the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “Complete Works” best, and it’s absolutely more fun to watch the DVD with friends (especially if they’ve never seen it before).

    • March 13, 2021 12:44 pm

      That Measure for Measure sounds like (as we say where I grew up) a hoot! We’ve watched the Reduce Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works and it is pretty fun.

  6. Karen K. permalink
    March 13, 2021 10:36 am

    I’m a fairly recent convert to loving theater, and it’s one of the things I’ve missed most in the past year. I had just moved to the DC area which has more than 100 local theaters nearby and I’ve been so sad about it. I’ve been trying to catch up with musicals and plays via DVD and streaming, and reading plays, but it’s not the same. I’d also started volunteering at the local playhouse and I so miss it. When I finally get to go back to see a live performance in a full house, I’m sure I will burst into tears.

    • March 13, 2021 12:43 pm

      We used to live in the DC area and loved all the theater. Arena Stage, in particular. It will be interesting to see how much outdoor theater there is this summer.

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