Saturday, August 14, 2021

Why live theater really lives

I went to the theater during the pandemic, or rather, the theater came to me. Every performing arts venue in New York closed in March 2020 and once the shock sank in, performances went online. I saw Metropolitan Opera performances, play readings, musical salons – all through streaming services, Facebook live or via Zoom.

Concerning theater, actors and companies made a valiant effort, reading their parts, sometimes in costume, in the little video Zoom boxes. I bought the tickets, made the donations to keep the producers going, applauded in my home office.  

Now, an unfathomable year and a-half later, live performances are set to return, though still under the shadow of the COVID-19 virus delta variant. I’ll be at a Seagle Festival performance tonight, in Schroon Lake, N.Y., among the Adirondack Mountains, and I am recalling what live theater has meant to me.

Since attending, as a child, my first performance, I love the gathering anticipation of live theater – the hubbub in the lobby as people reach for tickets, greet each other, critique the restaurant where they just had dinner, read the cast list on the wall, then the voices in the theater as people take their seats, the sound dying as the house lights fade to black.

I don’t know why, but the echo-y sound of theater actors’ voices on stage enthralled me. This was LIFE, bigger and grander and more thrilling than the existence I’d just left on the sidewalk. There they were, right in front of me, in one more dimension than a movie screen, speaking and singing, the shape of their voices molded by the theater’s acoustics and the sound-absorbing weight of our bodies.

To this day, I can recall vividly live moments in the theater.

Olivier as Shylock
How about the great actor category? At the end of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock the moneylender is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. In London, in the 1970s, no one who was in the theater could forget Laurence Olivier’s terrifying, anguished, howling cry of despair. I can hear it yet.

Or Christopher Plummer, in his 80s, reciting from memory the great speeches from “Henry V,” in concert with the New York Philharmonic, commanding the stage as his voice rang in the St. Crispin’s Day oration, inspiring his troops to battle.

How about audience reaction? I saw “Les Miserables” in London with my then-partner, Hank, a big, strong guy with a sensitive side, but a fairly macho guy nonetheless. As Jean Valjean was dying, you could hear sniffles all over the theater – including in the seat next to me.

One summer on Prince Edward Island, Canada, I attended a show by the storyteller David Weale, who specialized in collecting and dramatizing islander reminiscences of the place’s unique way of life. As

David Weale
you might expect, most of the audience members sported quite a few gray hairs. As he began a story about the island’s old one-room schoolhouses, he described a certain wooden pencil case that kids carried then. At that moment, there was an audible intake of breath from what must have been more than half the audience. They hadn’t thought about that pencil case in years, but the mere mention of it was like Proust’s madeleines – a touchstone for a flood of memories about childhood and school.

Another time, the absence of sound created an indelible theater memory at a theater performance for deaf people. I learned that deaf audiences applaud by waving their hands. I saw a dance of sign language, spoken narration, video and actors’ movement for the hearing and non-hearing audience members. You could do it in two dimensions, but the impact was immeasurable in person.

Although I enjoyed – somewhat – the streamed performances, the play readings on Zoom had a distanced quality, with little emotional impact. A live evening at the theater follows an emotional arc – anticipation, engagement, release. I always feel a little cheated if I have to go straight home after a show and don’t have time to go out with my companion and discuss the production.

After “American Idiot,” I waited while my 14-year-old daughter, Flo, gathered with the crowd at the stage door for Billy Joe Armstrong’s autograph.

Anthony Newfield

After “1984,” Flo, her boyfriend Ryan and I joined my friend, cast member Anthony Newfield, and his friends for a meal and lively stories of acting in this play and other Broadway shows. This was Ryan’s first Broadway play – what an extra treat!

Perhaps the best of all – when I was quite young, Mom took me to Sardi’s (where she was a regular) for a post-theater bite. It was Welsh rarebit, I recall, and I was intrigued by this new food as Princess Grace, Prince Rainier and Jessie Royce Landis swept by, on the way to their post-theater repast.

I can’t wait to savor all of theater’s dimensions again.