ANYTHING BUT THEATER (AT LEAST FOR A NIGHT OR TWO)
This short essay appeared on The New York Times “Artsbeat” blog in June, 2011. You can view the original here.
I stayed home and watched “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” last night and I don’t care who knows it.
I understand that this is not the most dramatic statement one could make. It doesn’t hold a candle to “I am Jean Valjean” or “At last my arm is complete again.” But given my career, especially over eight years at the American Theater Wing, such a declaration seems to surprise many people, who apparently imagine me at the theater every night.
As a Tony voter, I need to see every show that opens on Broadway and as a theater lover, I see far more than just those. Yet while my nights of theater-going per annum far outpace those of the average American (although I fear that’s a low bar to cross), I do not spend as much time at the theater as any critic, as any adjudicator of theater awards that encompass Off and Off-Off-Broadway, or even as many of the diehard fans who populate chat rooms and Twitter.
The fact is, I believe there is such a thing as too much theater.
I don’t mean that there is too much produced. Rather, I believe that – as in all things – going to the theater four or five times a week, week in and week out, isn’t good for you, and indeed, I think it hampers your ability to be a good theatergoer, contradictory as that sounds. I say this as someone with greater access than many — and someone grateful for an opportunity that many desire.
We experience theater very differently than other forms. We can pick up and put down reading at will, start and stop a CD, and now the DVR lets us pause during live events on TV. In theater, unless we are very privileged, we must attend to every moment or we may never see it again. That single-minded focus can be wearying. So like any exercise, muscular or mental, it’s important to vary our routine to insure the greatest gain.
I also believe that all forms of culture — high and low, academic and general — have an impact on our perception of every other form, and to consume only one with a single-minded passion diminishes the ability to appreciate it most fully. I don’t pretend to comprehend everything that Tom Stoppard writes, but I was surely helped along in “Arcadia” by high school science, just as the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” provided some context for his“Rock and Roll.”
The connections can be unexpected to say the least. I am frequently stunned to read how many young composers, of rock, of theater, of avant-garde works, cite Kiss (a band whose music I thought simplistic even when it was new) as a creative influence.
But I understand: When an angelic young woman begins Jez Butterworth’s Tony-nominated “Jerusalem” by singing the English hymn of that name, I could immediately contemplate the lyrics in their dramatic context because the song was not alien to me. I had known it for decades, despite being American and Jewish. How? The song was “covered” on Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” album, an almost daily listen for my brother and me in our early teens and an infinitely clearer introduction than in a certain Monty Python sketch, where it was sung to a neurotic mattress salesman (if you don’t know, don’t ask).
Needless to say, I’m not advocating that people don’t go to the theater. Please go, and go often. But I strongly suspect that if you attend to more of the world, to all that’s available to you, then the world of theater will be ever richer, and its effects ever more profound.
I’ll even suggest that “off nights” spent just talking with family, with friends, will bolster your ability to connect with theater (since I hope you do not converse with them during shows). Indeed, I steadily cried through much of Act II of Signature Theater’s “The Trip to Bountiful” because it brought to the surface emotions that I had not yet fully addressed about my family at that time. In the character of Carrie Watts, I saw my widowed father, reluctantly moved from our family home into an “independent living” apartment.
So I’m wondering: is there a work of theater that you feel you appreciated, enjoyed or understood better as a result of something you experienced outside of the theater? When you need a break from avid theater-going, what is the palate cleanser that prepares you for the next course – or feast?