I’m a big believer in the importance of art—every kind of art, regardless of the medium. Art has a unique and critical way of inspiriting life. I can time-travel and think of particular moments when some form of artistic expression felt wholly transporting. My thoughts stop at two particular points—my first experience of a room of Rothkos at the Phillips Collection in Washington—the stunning quiet—and the world premiere of John Tavener’s Ikon of Eros at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. What a transcendent experience of sounds in that soaring acoustic space.
We have some great stand-ins for live experiences of art—recorded music and movies in particular—but there’s one form of art that has to be experienced as it actually happens to even approach a sense of its power. I mean theater and, when I miss live art, theater is what I miss most. It’s partly for the sense of anticipation and the particularly intense moments theater can yield. But in some ways, for me theater represents a transit of intellectual and emotional growth, landmarks in life. I don’t intend to do an analysis of any of that but rather to make a chronological list of the theater moments I’ve never forgotten.
Mother Courage on Broadway starring Ann Bancroft. I was eighteen and the combination of the harsh and spare Brecht world with Bancroft’s possession of the role . . . I walked out into the bright New York afternoon and felt the world I lived in had completely changed.
Waiting for Godot and the other experimental work put on by Brown University’s Production Workshop. It almost has to be a crucial part of college to encounter the live embodiment of existential angst–Life can be like this, too?
Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Brecht again. For decades, I said it was the best theater I’d ever seen. All I remember now is how vertical the production was in spite of the circle in its name—the way it used the tall, dark space of the Guthrie’s thrust stage—unique at that time—to capture the haunting presence of the play itself.
Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare in London. Partly, it was just exciting to see theater in London, but the production was amazing. The lead was the nephew of Leslie Howard, who played Ashley in Gone the Wind (two androgynous first names?), so someone with real acting genes who brought great intensity to the role.. But the most memorable moment captured the power and violence at the heart of the play. The stage was black and silent when suddenly a bloodied sword was thrust out between the curtains. It was a startling, heart-stopping moment
Perhaps Ibsen, perhaps Chekhov. I can’t remember the particular production I’m envisioning, just that it came from the period when the Romanian Liviu Ciulei was Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater. He created the most extraordinary visual experiences. The performances were sometimes lacking but he so fully used the intricacies of the stage, and his sets were lavish and ethereally perfect and absolutely breathtaking.
The Crucible on a high school stage in Wisconsin and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at one of the many smaller theaters in the Twin Cities. Both these performances were in the late 80’s and their real importance to me was as a mother. My daughter was cast as Abigail in The Crucible, and one night when I was reading in bed, she came in and sat down in the chair and said, “Mom, you need to help me understand this character.” We read through her lines and talked about them and she added whatever she learned then to the other things that went into creating the role. She gave just a remarkable performance. I saw a woman in the audience turn to a friend and say, “Who is that?”–amazement in her voice–and I felt exactly the way I had hearing the same words when my son was five and throwing the ball he’d just caught all the way in from left field. Both times, I wanted to say, “My kid,” but the extraordinary part of the Crucible experience was realizing that my daughter could create art on the stage in a way I couldn’t even imagine doing.
With A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I had an analogous experience. At fourteen, my son had agreed, if grudgingly, to go to a Shakespeare play for his dad’s birthday. It wasn’t maybe the best performance ever put on, but it’s such a great play and employs such delightful stagecraft. When we left the theater and I saw the wonderful surprise on his face, I knew he had had a Mother Courage moment, that theater was now part of his life.
A play—possibly Jump at the Sun—based on the work of Zora Neale Hurston at the Penumbra Theatre, August Wilson’s old haunt in St. Paul. I don’t know when I’ve had more fun in my life. The production was zesty, raucous, and bursting with energy. It was just a stupendous experience.
Brian Fiel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It’s probably not a truly great play and it wasn’t an earth-shaking production, but there was a luminous, golden light on the stage and, set in Donegal as the play is, it evoked my sense of the particular future the 19th century Irish diaspora missed. When I saw it, I was completely immersed in the research for Suite Harmonic and had discovered the wonderful landscape of the Blue Stack Mountains outside Donegal Town. Adding this play to the experience felt like a kind of destiny. It was seriously moving.
Thinking back over all these play-going experiences makes me wonder what it is that’s so special about live theater beyond its sheer immediacy. I’m not sure, though I think it may be that theater, more than anything else, is so wonderful at capturing loneliness and joy. It’s an echo of life.