Thursday, August 22, 2013

life and death in the theatre.

I was at a reading of Allison Gregory's UNCERTAIN TERMS over at Seattle Rep several weeks ago when the past rose up and roared over me like a wave. It was a warm summer evening and we were in one of the back rehearsal rooms, crowded with chairs. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society had taken over the rest of the theatre, busily preparing one of their musicals, and as I made my way through the maze of backstage corridors I kept seeing men dressed like pirates and women in corsets and ringlets, ruffles everywhere you looked. It was all a little bit surreal.

The play shifts back and forth between the past and the present, and between the living and the dead. This took me a bit of time to understand. The characters are a man, his former wife and brother-in-law, his former mother-in-law, a real estate agent, and a girl who believes he is her father. It was funny, and it made me ache in ways I can't quite explain. The part that slammed us all into a wall was the part when the real estate agent recounts the sudden death of her husband, at the end of the first act. His death as she describes it is the death of Mark Chamberlin, who died suddenly in the hospital after a seemingly innocuous bicycle accident more than two years ago. The air in the room changed as we realized what we were hearing.

I remember all this so clearly because the death of Mark Chamberlin came at almost the same time as the end of Intiman Theatre. The former was a shock; the latter was a slow and inevitable decline. The two things together changed me as a theatregoer. They have haunted me. I can't put it any other way. I have thought again and again about these two things, and also about Mike Daisey's HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA in the spring of 2011, and the roundtable discussion afterwards, so filled with anger and sadness. All these things are intertwined now. It was at this time I became aware of more and more theatres that I hadn't even noticed before, all over my city. The more plays I saw, the more seemed to appear, as if my desire for more caused them to multiply exponentially.

The people in Seattle who make theatre, they seem to make it out of an inescapable need to create; for them, there seems to be a sense of purpose in staying here, in trying to make art here. Not as a stepping-stone onto something "bigger," but as an end unto itself. As an artist, you're told that the great leap into the unknown is to head off to New York, or LA, or Europe. But I have come to feel that it is as much of a leap to stay and build something, to choose Seattle not out of fear or inertia but because this is home, and anything is possible.

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