Marketing. Advertising. Community Outreach. Audience engagement. Audience Development. Social Networking. Targeted Pitches. And so on.
This litany of phrases are among the buzzwords common to anyone who spends their time focused on attracting audiences to the theatre. They appear in the fire hose spray of blogs and tweets that consume my days and those of other like-minded individuals, as everyone tries to build a better mousetrap to lure theatregoers, and then generously or boastfully (or both) shares their experience and perspective with others.
Allow me a second short list.
Thrilling. Moving. Provocative. Hilarious. Insightful. Affecting. Witty. Stimulating. Shocking. Definitive. Wonderful. Imaginative. Spectacular. Thought-provoking. Intimate. Sensuous.
These are, of course, adjectives, a handful of examples of the language employed by theatres in the efforts listed above, as well as by critics to describe work which meets their favor. These are the words that course through subscription brochures, direct mail pitches and quote ads, perhaps so often that they are robbed of their meaning. They are meant to be motivational, but from overuse, they are rendered impotent.
I have undertaken this exercise because for all of the valuable advice and worthy dialogue that are part of my daily conversation about theatre, there’s one thing I never hear discussed: tears. Not the verb, but the noun.
Certain films are often described as “tear-jerkers,” a phrase of condescension or disdain. In a continued show of sexism, modern tear-jerkers are usually thought of as being for women, save for the rare male “weepie,” such as Brian’s Song or Field of Dreams (and note how those both are counter-balanced by being set in the masculine world of sports). But we never speak of tears in the theatre, as if admitting to that level of emotional connection is somehow beneath the form’s intellectual and cultural aspirations. Yet three of the most personally important experiences I’ve had at the theatre in recent years have been at shows which provoked me to tears. Indulge me as I identify each.
My first significant bout with tears at the theatre came during Signature Theater Company’s production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful featuring Lois Smith in the central role. In contrast to motion picture tears, which are usually evoked at the climax of the film (Elliot saying goodbye to E.T. perhaps) or at a key plot point (the death of Bambi’s mother), my tears at Bountiful came somewhere in the middle of Act II, as Carrie Watts spoke so plaintively of her desire to return to her longtime home, and plunged into the journey which gives the play its name. She was seeking a past to which she could never return, the comfort of loved ones and surroundings gone or decaying. In her despair, I thought of my widowed father, living in an “independent living facility,” without the wife with whom, among other endearments, he had shared a single beverage glass at meals throughout their decades together. I could keep in touch with him frequently, as could my siblings, but we could not bring back my mother or restore my father’s true independence ever again, and tears streamed down my face as I recognized in Miss Watts what the word “bereft” must mean, and that this may well be my father’s perpetual state too. The tears – no sobs, not cries, just salty streaks – flowed for a good ten minutes.
I next came to tears at the long-running revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by David Cromer. They began almost immediately at the start of the third act and continued unstaunched for the duration. I was bewildered by my reaction, because when this occurred, it was my second time seeing the production, and although I thought Cromer’s interpretation to be revelatory, I had not been moved as much the first time. Even as my eyes welled up and liquid dripped down my cheeks and off my chin, I was hyper-aware of the fact that the show’s Stage Manager, played by Michael McKean, who I knew casually, was sitting perhaps five feet from me; would he think me in distress, or perhaps be disturbed himself at this disproportionate display (when I saw him a couple of days later, he said he hadn’t noticed me at all, by the way). What had changed between my visits? I had lost a good friend, suddenly, and too soon, just a few weeks before the second viewing. Wilder’s graveyard of the departed, talking about those still alive, had acquired a new inhabitant, who sat on that stage as surely as did any of the actors.
You might wish to suggest that my tears were a result of plays from a different time, since Our Town and The Trip to Bountiful were both more than 50 years old, the product of an earlier era in theatrical writing. But they sprang forth yet again at a new play, Richard Nelson’s Sweet and Sad, during its all-too-brief run at The Public Theater. This slice of life in the Apple family, reuniting the characters and cast of the previous year’s That Hopey Changey Thing, was timed to and set on the day of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, though it carefully avoided confronting that horror and its aftermath head-on. My tears began late in this play, as the family uncle, an actor now struggling with what must surely be advancing Alzheimer’s, recited a Walt Whitman poem that he would later present at a local 9/11 memorial service. As it happened, thanks to the three-quarter thrust of the Anspacher, the uncle’s back was to me, but the other five actors in the show, playing his nieces, nephew and one spouse, were facing directly at me. I watched them as they watched him, their beloved uncle, fraying more each day, summon his powers of performance, remarkably, yet one more time. I was struck by the supreme beauty of the moment: the poem, the performance of it, the characters’ love for each other, the acting company’s bond built over two separate productions, the deep humanity on display so very close to me, and my tears came yet again, through the end of the play and the curtain call, and the emotion carried me throughout my subway ride home.
I do not regret these reactions, which is why I share them. I see now that their common bond was their exploration of mortality, something I understand in my late 40s far differently than I did when in my 20s. Were tears at these plays unique to me, because of what I brought to each play, because of what had occurred in my life and to those I love and loved? Perhaps. But these tears were cleansing, true and precious. These plays and productions had tapped something in me that arose too rarely, releasing emotions either repressed or until those moments, unformed.
At this point, you may not recall that I began this essay with marketing-speak and a litany of adjectives, but I call you back there because I think so many of those words and phrases, as I said, have been denatured, or used to intellectualize the theatrical experience. I am smart enough to know that few people will buy tickets for something that they are assured will make them cry, yet I think we fail to value and share theatre’s potential to evoke responses that delve into our individual essences, and are essential.
I go to the theatre for many reasons, and a good cry isn’t one of them, yet these evenings I have just described will stay with me for as long as I have memory. They have had the power to move me even through the act of describing them for you. As we analyze, market, raise money, program, produce, we must not abstract or disdain evoking deep emotion through our work, since I think it may be the finest marketing tool we have: truth.