Tuesday, February 28, 2012

theatre notes. it's a fucking bargain. why don't you go?

I spent about $1200 going to the theatre last year. I saw about 36 plays. This averages out to about $100 a month, three plays a month, spending roughly $33 per play. (Including parking). This is cheap. You'd be hard put to have a nice dinner out for $33 (once you add in tax and tip and, yes, parking), unless you're talking a $6 bowl of pho or a $12 burger at your local pub. I started weighing the cost of things against the price of play tickets. I could get takeout for lunch a couple days a week, or I could see a play. I could try that fancy new restaurant, or I could see two plays. Before I knew it, my dining table was piled high with programs and my dashboard was littered with parking stubs.

Some plays were in tiny converted coffee-house-garage-theatres (seating maybe 35-50 patrons), which might cost $10-$20. The mid-size theatres (200 or so seats) will run you about $25-$35. The large theaters will probably cost you about $35-$50. (I leave out the Paramount or the 5th Ave, because I don't generally go to Broadway musicals). You could do what I do and get an ACTPass from ACT, which lets you see almost everything produced on its four stages, year-round, for $25 a month. You could get a Today Pass from the Seattle Rep, which lets you call up the box office on the day of and grab whatever seats are open; it works out to about $22 per ticket. Live theatre is a fucking bargain. Forget trying to get into the latest hot spot to open in an already crowded neighborhood. Forget ingredients you can't pronounce or indifferent waiters or mediocre food. Go to the theatre.

Sure, the quality of stage productions varied as wildly as any group of restaurants. None were terrible, but some were extraordinary. And I still love going out to eat; that part of me will never go away entirely. But what live theatre gives me is the sense that the people who create it do it out of love. Out of passion. You can't half-ass things when you are swinging from a set of jungle-gyms disguised as Sherwood Forest (as in Robin Hood) or hurling insults like ninja stars, silent but deadly when they hit (anything written by Harold Pinter). You can't anticipate what the audience will be like, night after night, or even what the feeling onstage will be. There's some chemistry between the stage and the audience, as I've said before, which changes every time, which makes or breaks the night.  But oh, what a thrill that is, when the audience finds that energy and just gets it.

We go to the theatre to hear stories. To laugh, or to cry, when some truth hits unbearably close to home.  To rejoice when hope is regained or love is found. To feel a sense of connection to our neighbors in the audience and the actors onstage. This is mostly possible because so many actors in Seattle have been working here for decades. It gives me a jolt of excitement to see a familiar face, whether it's someone I have loved for twenty years or two, which has never gone away. All this keeps me coming back. And so should you.

A few things I am looking forward to this spring:

Holy Days, from New Century Theatre Company

Red, at Seattle Rep

Spring Awakening, from Balagan Theatre

The Pinter Festival at ACT later this summer (although as an ACTPass holder, I am naturally very excited about the entire upcoming season).

Friday, February 24, 2012

theatre notes. Pinter Fortnightly.

How many plays has it been, now? Fifteen? Sixteen? I've lost count. It dazzles me just to think about it, and I didn't even make it to all the Pinter Fortnightly evenings. I've seen enough, though, to have a sense of what makes a body of work. How a playwright can have a distinct voice that remains true as he continues to evolve, the way a composer or painter has a distinct sound or way of portraying light. I've loved these staged readings, rehearsed for only a single afternoon. I think this short rehearsal is what gives Pinter's words a sense of realness, an immediacy that might get lost after weeks of preparation. The actors don't have time to over-think the words, which can be fatal. I think Frank Corrado described some performances of Pinter seen in England last year as "suicidally reverential," or something like that.

This is the difficulty with Pinter. It's easy - and catastrophic - to think too much, to over-interpret every phrase, over-emphasize every pause. His words are so precise that all you have to do is say them as naturally as if you were speaking yourself. As the way Pinter himself speaks, if you've seen him in interviews. Which, of course, is also hard. You have to wear the words lightly. The lightness is key. I am reminded of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium, his essays (lectures) titled Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity (Calvino died before writing the sixth, Consistency). These first three - lightness, quickness, and exactitude - are what makes Pinter work. You need all three to lay bare the true, unbearable weight of emotions that run beneath the words. (Here I echo Calvino writing about Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being and how "everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight"*). I can't describe it any other way.

Old Friends is, like Moonlight, or Betrayal, or No Man's Land, about friendship and love and memory and the passing of time. Once again there are repeated motifs, recurring moments and phrases, emphasizing the play's resemblance less to a coherent story than to a piece of music. The same memory is described by different people, slightly differently, which is how it happens in real life. You aren't sure just what happened (at least I am not, which is my usual state of mind after a Pinter play), but as we see recurring moments unfold I hear a murmured catch of breath as the audience around me recognizes the repeated coda. This palpable energy flickers across the room in a wave.

What we have here in the Bullitt Cabaret of ACT Theatre is a precious intimacy, between the actors in Old Friends who are most likely old friends, for the Seattle theatre scene is small and tightly knit - and between the actors and the audience who have been coming to these Pinter Fortnightly readings for three years now. Marianne Owen I remember from my first season attending ACT, in 1992. A few nights later I saw her and her husband, Kurt Beattie (who happens to be Artistic Director at ACT), at Town Hall. I ran up to her to say how much I loved Old Times and how much I was looking forward to the festival coming up this summer. She, too, was struck by the intensity of the audience, and I am again reminded of what I said regarding How to Write a New Book for the Bible: the audience makes or breaks a play. We are here because we love Pinter, because we love ACT, because we love Frank Corrado for putting these Fortnightly readings together, because we love these actors who have been striding our stages for lo these twenty or thirty years, perhaps more. And because we want it, no need it, to go on.

*Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Vintage, 1993. p. 7.

Friday, February 10, 2012

theatre notes. How to Write a New Book for the Bible.

I remember, vividly, seeing Bill Cain's Equivocation here at Seattle Rep some years back. It was so brilliant and polished that it set a new standard in my mind of what theatre could be, an electric confluence of writing, directing, casting, and audience. Ah, yes, the audience is important. Didn't you know that? The audience can make or break a show. If they love something, if they believe something, if they respond to something in their hearts and minds, that invisible membrane between stage and audience tears away and we all become one single organism. The actors' voices and breath flows out over the audience and back again, their energy coming into our bodies and lifting us all up, up, up.

Bill Cain's latest play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, is very different from Equivocation, but it drew the same electric response. All around me, people were laughing and sighing and crying and, because it felt like we were coming to know the characters in the play, responding to the actors. Out loud. There are repeated lines and motifs, and some audience members would get so caught up in the language of the play, they would repeat the lines, too. This should have been annoying, but instead, it was transportive. It was a sign of how deeply we connected to the story, how intensely we responded to the human drama onstage.

This is an autobiographical play. If Equivocation was written out of anger (after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), then this one was written out of love. This is Bill Cain's family. His father, his mother, his brother. It weaves back and forth between the present, during which his mother is dying of cancer (his father had died several years before), leaping back to childhood and forward to his brother's years as a soldier in Vietnam. The scenes between father and sons reminded me, again, of the film Tree of Life, and that line by Kim Stafford, (which I've quoted before), remembering a bike ride with his brother and the touch of his father's hands on their shoulders. How long can you feel a hand, steady on your shoulder, after that hand pulls away? It hits on something so real for all of us, our relationships with our parents and our siblings, how we have our own rules, our own language, our own history, our own...bible.