For some people, the words “interactive theatre” strike fear into their hearts, and they’ll do anything to avoid it. The prospect of being accosted by an actor, of having the spotlight turned on them, of potentially being embarrassed in front of others for the sake of everyone else’s amusement is something they equate with impromptu public speaking or a trip to the dentist. They certainly don’t want to pay for the opportunity to have this occur.
I have no such fear. I gave in to the participation at Sleep No More with only slight resistance (I was ultimately rewarded with a soft kiss on my neck from one actress, the only person to access that area in such a manner since I met the woman who is now my wife more than a dozen years ago). I threw myself into Queen of the Night with more enthusiasm. I dream of being brought up on stage by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, or by Penn & Teller, to be their prop or their stooge, as they see fit. I lean forward eagerly when those teams start scanning the audience. Perhaps I’ve never been selected because, after many visits, I look too eager.
But this should not suggest that I am an exhibitionist, least of all in every circumstance. As a result, my own particular bugaboos initially kept me from even considering two current shows, until I reminded myself of my commitment to not just see work that has the most obvious appeal for me, but to challenge myself more. That’s what pushed me into seeing Here Lies Love and Drunk Shakespeare, two radically different shows that few would likely ever group together. But they each featured elements that trigger my anxiety, my awkwardness, my flight reflex, so for me they’re of a piece.
Even with all the acclaim for its original engagement at The Public Theater, the words that leapt out at me in connection with HLL were “disco” and “dancing,” which both separately and together hold no appeal whatsoever. I lived through the original disco era without ever enjoying the music (I was moving out of prog rock and into British power pop at the time), and while I wouldn’t have undertaken to steamroll disco records (someone really did this as a stunt), I didn’t care to own or hear the music at all, unavoidable as it was. As for dancing, I have no natural gifts in this area whatsoever and few things make me so self-conscious as the act of attempting to move in some relationship to music, be it a formal waltz, a Broadway showstopper, or rock and roll. I’ll nod my head or tap my feet in rhythm, but that’s my limit.
With Drunk Shakespeare, the first word in the title was more than off-putting, despite my affection for the latter. Though I have sampled alcohol on a few occasions over the years, I never cared for it; I was probably priggishly moralistic about it in my youth (though the only two times I was ever drunk were as a teen), but my ongoing avoidance of liquor is really rooted in nothing more than not caring for the taste and having no interest in developing it (this applies to vegetables as well, FYI). As a result, I have spent many an evening watching friends get gently tipsy or utterly blotto, while my consciousness remained unaltered. So a show in which an actor aggressively drinks but still performs his or her role, in an environment which encourages the audience to imbibe along with them, seemed like paying for the opportunity to watch strangers get smashed, which wasn’t much fun even when I watched my friends do it.
I ultimately saw Here Lies Love because of the overwhelming critical enthusiasm that prompted its return to The Public this spring; I needed to find out what had everyone so excited. I decided to see Drunk Shakespeare because it is drawn from the work of the company Three Day Hangover, the leadership trio of which includes a woman who interned at The O’Neill when I ran it, as well as her husband. I had skipped their last production because of my prejudices and I didn’t feel good about it, because I felt I was being unsupportive of the woman who had been a diligent worker years earlier and who I was pleased to reconnect with recently.
Now this is where you’ll expect me to say that in both cases, the shows were revelations which upended my previous biases. But I’m afraid I can’t. When exhorted to dance along at HLL, I hugged the perimeter of the endlessly reconfigured staging areas and moved only when a shifting platform required me to do so, even as others joined in with abandon. At Drunk Shakespeare I attempted to sip some Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, once the favored spirit of my college drama troupe, but found I could barely get it past my lips, let alone consume enough to have any impact on my blood alcohol level. No fun at a party then, no fun at a party now.
That said, there was a key difference. I have long ago stopped wondering what within me makes dancing such torture, or caring when people quiz me in amazement about my abstemiousness. There’s no real peer pressure on these issues anymore and if one or both are limitations in the perception of others, then so be it. I never wanted to be John Travolta and realize I can’t possibly be Gene Kelly; I’ll never appreciate a fine wine or enjoy a round of beers at the end of the day. I don’t need to move to love music; a truly great hot cocoa gives me all the spirit lifting I need, sans spirits.
As a result, though I stood outside the action of Here Lies Love and Drunk Shakespeare, much as I had stood literally at the fringes and figuratively outside so many social events over so many years, I could enjoy them – and the people enjoying them – without condescension or alienation. I could appreciate the shows even without being fully immersed, but also without feeling like the odd man out, the way drinking and dancing had made me feel for so long. I guess it’s a sign of comfort in my own skin that I didn’t feel for many years, as well as an affirmation that things I might instinctively avoid because of long-held fears, I can now enjoy, opening me up to new experiences in the theatre and, perhaps, outside of it as well.
So shake that thang, boogiers of all ages at Here Lies Love. Drink up, college dudes and bachelorette parties who enjoy The Bard and Jagermeister at Drunk Shakespeare. I can’t fully join with you, but I’m glad you’re having fun with theatre.
P.S. Three Day Hangover is about to begin performances of Twelfth Night, or Sir Toby Belch’s Lonely Heart Club Cabaret, featuring karaoke with a live band. Have I mentioned that I happily sing in public, often a bit too loudly, even when I probably shouldn’t? I can’t wait to go. They’ve been warned and, now, so have you.