Matinee Idol

September 20th, 2010 § 0 comments

When I was a senior in college, I was sent to meet some relatively recent alumni of my school who had already begun to forge careers in the theatre. I remember the day quite vividly, and can still quote from it freely, even though of the two people with whom I met, one doesn’t recall it at all and the other remembers the meeting, but not the gist of the conversation.

At a distance of 26 years, one of the more salient bits of advice I received that day was as follows: “You know, if you’re any good at what you do, and you stay in this business long enough, you’re going to do just fine – because so many people drop out along the way.” Not exactly inspiring, but practical, grounded and, as I have learned, true.

Now I could easily spend a number of paragraphs parsing this advice and the factors that contribute to it, but I’ll leave that to you, because I’m more interested in a corollary to that advice, which I learned for myself: “If you stay in this business long enough, you’re going to meet your idols.”

Much is written, and said, no matter where you work in theatre, about “the theatrical community.” In my experience, the theatrical community is neither singular nor exceptionally small, though I daresay the number of people working in the professional theatre in the U.S. is probably smaller than the number of people working in the legal profession, or the medical profession, and it’s certainly dwarfed by any number of categories of public service employees.

But the fact is that theatre is small enough, fluid enough and interconnected enough that, over time, one builds up an enormous network of friends, associates and acquaintances, all of which Facebook, LinkedIn and the like would be all too happy to track and chart for you, were everyone you’ve ever encountered to subscribe to any one such service. I strongly suspect that in the field where John Guare popularized the notion of “six degrees of separation,” everyone in the theatre is likely separated by not more than three degrees.

Obviously the effect is intensified by a number of factors: how many theatres you work at or productions you work on, whether you move among different cities as you pursue your career, whether you change your area(s) of expertise as your career develops. In my case, I have had eight employers and five job titles, working in only three states; I have had some association with approximately 121 full professional productions, not counting workshops and readings.

But this is all prologue to the knowledge I declared above. And I will now launch into a seeming non-sequitur.

Last Saturday afternoon, I went to see a movie that, at that moment, was playing on precisely one screen in the country. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t even a movie, but a DVD projected onto a movie screen. It was a documentary about a once popular, now largely forgotten pop singer and songwriter named Harry Nilsson. I expected to be the only person there, and was heartened when I walked into the theatre to see three other people.

After settling down, I was aware of other people trickling in and settling as well, and of a couple who took their places in aisle seats across from me, just one row back. I didn’t not turn to look at them, but merely registered their presence, as one does. Then they began to speak to each other.

‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, when I heard a man’s voice. ‘That voice is awfully familiar.’ And so I turned and found myself perhaps five feet from Harold Prince. I immediately got up, took two steps, and politely interrupted, saying, “Hi, Hal.”

“Well look who’s here,” responded the legendary director and producer, who then introduced me to his wife Judy. He then asked why I was there, saying that they, too, had expected to be the only ones in the theatre. The chat continued, on various subjects, including a close mutual friend, until I excused myself just before the film was to begin.

I sat there in the half-light of the theatre, overjoyed. Because more concretely than ever before, I understood that Hal Prince knew who I was, remembered who I was, and was perfectly happy to have me accost him and start a conversation. All based primarily on his having done the American Theatre Wing’s podcast “Downstage Center” some two and a half years earlier – and his admission at that time that he watched our “Working in the Theatre” TV program, too. (“I have no idea when it’s on,” I recall him telling me. “My wife finds it.”)

Now I can imagine your thoughts as you read this. ‘He runs the American Theatre Wing. They do the Tony Awards. So he knows Hal Prince. Not a surprise.’

But what you don’t know is that, Sweeney Todd is my favorite musical of all time. It was by seeing the original production of Evita that I began to understand what a director actually does. A key factor that had influenced my decision to attend the University of Pennsylvania was that Hal had gone there, that at Penn I allied myself with the same theatre group he had once been a part of, and I worked on shows in the Harold Prince Theatre. When I was graduating, I wrote to him asking for a meeting, and though I never got a reply, my hero-worship was undiminished. On a trip to Las Vegas only weeks ago, I saw his revised version of Phantom. We even share the same birthday.

But, I hear you say, it’s not like this was your first meeting. No, it wasn’t. But it was the first time we’d merely run into each other, and he treated me as a familiar, a peer. There in Theatre 1 of Cinema Village, by sheer coincidence and a shared, obscure interest, I felt I had truly arrived, at the age of 48.

Yes, I have met many famous people. But knowing them is what’s important to me. I think that all of us who work in theatre are fans and no matter how long we do it, we remain fans. My frisson of excitement at running into Hal Prince last Saturday was a reminder of how much of a fan I still am, even though I needn’t stand at a stage door.

And for those thinking about their career, I can think of no better encouragement: “Do theatre. You’ll get to meet your idols.”


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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