Caution: Memories Ahead

May 2nd, 2011 § 0 comments

The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center and the growing trend of “cine-casts” not withstanding, the primary purveyor of theatrical memories is precisely that: memory. We can read about prior productions, or speak with those who saw shows that we did not, if we want to have a greater understanding of what made a particular show so good, to go beyond the words of a script in the page and into the realm of the experiential. It is a time honored tradition, and I have greatly enjoyed being the recipients of the memories of others: A.R. Gurney’s story of being a student at the Yale School of Drama and seeing the U.S. premiere of Long Day’s Journey Into Night during its tryout at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven; Steppenwolf Theatre Company executive director David Hawkanson (my former boss at Hartford Stage) recalling his first Broadway show, My Fair Lady with Andrews and Harrison at the Mark Hellinger; William Goldman’s seminal book The Season.

As my theatergoing memories continue to grow (arithmetically but seemingly exponentially), I am now the possessor and purveyor of my own theatrical archive, one which I happily share at the drop of a hat: from the first Broadway show for which I paid for my own ticket (Beatlemania) to lesser known but indelibly remembered regional productions (John McMartin in This Story of Yours at Long Wharf; Peter MacNicol in All The King’s Men at Trinity Rep) to the original Broadway productions ofAngels in AmericaNoises Off and even the closed-on-opening-night flop Frankenstein. All of this forms me a theatergoer, as a theatre professional and, at times, even as a theatre commentator.

But there is a danger inherent in memories, and that is their ability to obscure the shows that follow in its wake. I am forever comparing and contrasting productions I have seen in the past with those I see today. And while at times a new production will take on extraordinary power precisely because it tops my memories of or affinity for a particular piece of work (I may have been bowled over by the Nick Dear/Danny BoyleFrankenstein at the National precisely because it told an oft-told tale from a new perspective, namely that of the Creature), too often a show seen years ago and loved has erected a high hurdle for any new production to surpass. Indeed, because memory is plastic and not fixed, newer productions compete with an idealized, selectively recalled version of that earlier production, raising the bar higher still.

This is not unique to me. You need only read a critic of any tenure when they review a revival, or new version of a classic story, to see how memory competes with currently reality. Has any review of That Championship Season not evoked the original production 40 years earlier (one that many of today’s critics were not old enough to have seen); has any critic managed to see David Cromer’s House of Blue Leaves without invoking Jerry Zaks’ Lincoln Center Theater production of a quarter century ago?

This is natural of course, and hardly limited to theatre. When I see Elvis Costello in concert later this month (my 9th or 10th live show by him), I will rank it against earlier opportunities to see my favorite rock performer. Will this compare to my first encounter in 1981 at the Bridgeport CT Jai Alai Fronton (30 songs in 90 minutes) or a more recent show, such as his performance at Central Park’s SummerStage, which I remember most for sitting on cramped, lower-back-spasm-inducing bleachers? No experience can be completely discrete; we bring associations to everything we do, whether directly related or not.

For theatre, and I imagine for all of our experiences with cultural work, this is truly a double-edged sword. Am I a more knowledgeable theatergoer than many, are my critical faculties honed, can I better educate others because of this back catalogue that rests between my ears, often bursting to be let out for the edification (or stupefaction) of others? I suppose so. But can I experience anything but a brand new play with a true sense of openness and discovery? Sadly, no. I followed the muse that led me to a career as part of the recreation I loved most, and as a result, almost every entertainment experience retains a whiff – if not the pungent aroma – of work, even when I attend solely by choice, not because my jobs compel me to go.

I have written previously about significant theatrical works that I have yet to see, but even though I will be a virgin when I experience those stories first hand for the first time, I am already despoiled by every other theatrical work I have seen, by every script I have read, indeed by every story others have told me about their own encounters with these works.

I am overstating the case, of course, and no one should think I am not thankful, fortunate and enriched by all that has come before, by all that I have been fortunate enough to see. I know that others probably envy my experiences, and I would not part with them, nor would I have been willing to forego them, for any reason (except for perhaps a few shows I could have done without, but only a few).

So what is my challenge when I attend the theatre? To put aside my all-too-effective memory, to try each and every time to experience work as I did when I was in my teens and twenties: excited, expectant, and open to whatever is about to come. The memories will be there when the show is over, forcing their way into my consideration of what I have just seen; my critical faculties will inevitably exert their pull, and my opinion will pour forth to friends and especially younger colleagues tomorrow. But each night, I must try to erase the slate and let the play and production tell its own story, lest I become mired in my own memories, instead of forming new ones as the work at hand unfolds.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.


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