I am a theatre person. When I was cast in my first show my freshman year in high school, it was like a light came on: "Ding! This is who you are!" Now, X number of years later, I can look back at a life that has been profoundly influenced by live theatre. Though I haven't kept count, I am fairly sure that I have attended upward of 1000 live theatre events, and still there is a thrilling shiver that goes through my body when I am sitting in a theatre and the lights start to dim. Consideration of this history recently led me to challenge myself to see if, out of all of those shows over all of those year, I could come up with a list of my TOP TEN FAVORITE NIGHTS IN THE THEATRE.
In order to take on this daunting task, I had to give myself some ground rules: first, I had to be sitting in a seat. I could do a list of my favorite times on stage, but that's a whole different challenge. Second, I'm afraid that I have to exclude events involving my students. Many times, my students have brought me to tears and overwhelming feelings of pride as I sit and watch them on stage achieving things I wouldn't have thought them capable of. It is impossible to separate the myriad emotions that these experiences inspire, and simply judge the quality of the work in comparison to watching strangers on stage. Third, as I considered it, I realized that they aren't always "NIGHTS In The Theatre;" in some cases, it is one scene, or maybe even a moment powerful enough to stay with me after all this time.
So, with those considerations in place, and in no particular order (it was hard enough paring them down; ranking them would debilitate me), here are the Top 10:
1. "Cloud Nine" by Caryl Churchill. I saw this at the smallish Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1981. It was one of its very first performances. I was friends with somebody whose friend's boyfriend was a producer on it, or some such convoluted connection. They were opening a British import directed by Tommy Tune, who would go on to become an important and successful Broadway director, but at the time was a six-and-a-half foot tall song and dance man. The play has elements of satire, farce, absurdism, drama. They needed to fill some seats and start creating buzz. We sat in the front row, and had no idea what to expect. Seven actors play 15 characters in two acts that take place 100 years apart (though the characters only age 25 years). It is incredibly funny, and deeply moving. I can't think of another play where the characters learn more about themselves, change more, or where the characters are more relatable. It's a brilliant play, perfectly acted and directed, and when I left the theatre, I couldn't stop talking about it, which is probably how I ended up going back to see it four more times over its 2 year run. People would come to town, and I would insist on bringing them to see it.
2. "Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams. This is one of those partial evenings I referred to. "The Glass Menagerie" is one of the greatest American plays written by the greatest American playwright. I knew the play well when I saw this production in 1984. The production was flawed. Jessica Tandy, who was one of the greatest American actresses of the 20th century (I saw her on stage in two other productions) was too old to play the domineering Southern matriarch to two 20-ish children. For those who are not familiar with the play, there is a scene towards the end of the play between Laura, the shy, insecure, sheltered daughter, and Jim, the "Gentleman Caller" who has been brought into the house with the hopes that he will court Laura. After dinner, the two of them are left alone together, where Laura reveals that she remembers Jim from high school, where he was a big man on campus, and she was a wallflower. This fifteen-minute scene is a little diamond of perfection in this wonderful play. Watching this scene, which I had seen many times before, played by Amanda Plummer and John Heard, is the only time I can ever recall forgetting that I was sitting in a theatre. I completely forgot that there were other people around me, and was entirely brought in and enthralled with what was going on with these two people. And I was sitting in the balcony. At the end of the scene, another actor entered the stage, and I was startled and may even have jumped and yelled a little when I realized that there were other people around me. The scene was a magical moment that I will never forget.
3. "The Comedy of Errors" by William Shakespeare. It was my first time in England (1985-ish). We spent a number of days in London, and saw a number of mediocre musicals. We then took a train up to Stratford and immersed ourselves in the early life of Shakespeare; took a tour of his home, school, etc. We got tickets to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform "The Comedy of Errors." I'm not a huge fan of Shakespeare's comedies but, being in Shakespeare's hometown, I felt it would be wrong to miss the RSC perform. Sitting watching this performance, I was reminded that this is what the British do better than us. I had wasted all that time and money seeing British musicals, which of course, the Americans created and perfected, instead of watching them do heightened language brilliantly. The play is silly; always has been, always will be. I think that what raised it to such an enjoyable experience was the fact that they did not treat the material as if it were fragile gold that had to be handled with care. They threw everything at the play: slapstick, vaudeville, even opera, but all in service to the play. None of their choices were random or superfluous; each served to heighten and illuminate the play. It was an entirely enjoyable evening on so many different levels.
Well, I guess serving up 30-some years of theatre-going has made me long-winded, and I realize now that completing the Top 10 would take me from Blog-length into novella. So, this will be a three-part entry. Tune in next time for Part 2.
In the meantime, I would love to hear from you. You don't have to do a top 10 if you don't want, maybe just a top 1. Feel free to comment below.