The Power of Theatre

essay

{Header image is of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre stage, taken by Angie Fiedler Sutton.}

Note: this essay was also published on Medium. This essay has a minor spoiler for Once as well as for Of Mice and Men.

I have always loved theatre. From when I was a child and my grandmother took me to shows at the St. Louis Muny to participating in school plays myself, there is not a time in my life where I can remember theatre not being a part of my life in some way or another.

It was in high school, however, that made me sit up and say, ‘I need to be a part of this in any way I can.’ In my sophomore year, my high school English teacher (who also taught theatre) was cast as George in a production at the local community college of John Steinbech’s Of Mice and Men. My mom, willing to go with me (as I didn’t have a car yet), had expressed some concern at going to see such a depressing story. But at the time, I didn’t know the story, and so we went.

The National Theatre’s production of ‘Of Mice and Men’, which — as of this time — I have not seen yet. Photo by Richard Phibbs and used courtesy the National Theatre.

We get to the ending: George makes Lenny kneel down and look out, describing the place they were going to go. George pulls out a gun, aiming it at the back of Lenny’s head. Lenny asks to be told about the rabbits again, and George starts to tell him. You can see the tears in George’s eyes as he knows there is no good way out of the situation they are in. He cocks the gun … and the stage lights go OUT. A gunshot echoes in the darkness. I just sat there, in shock. I couldn’t applaud, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t BREATHE.

It was marvelous.

(If this story sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because I told a version of it in my last Stage Savvy column for KC Stage before leaving for Los Angeles.)

Every production I go to now is a sort of challenge to me to get to that place where suddenly the theatre disappears and I am awash in the story being told on stage.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Once at South Coast Repertory. My short review may have been silly at the heart, but was given with love. I had been lucky enough to catch the show when I was in London in 2014 (read my review here), and I am happy to say that this production was just as wonderful as that one. It was similar enough to make me breathe a sigh of relief that my love for that production wasn’t wrapped up in being in London to see it but different enough to still be its own thing.

However, I’m not here to review that production. (Although if you are in Los Angles and can see it, do so. It was fabulous.)

There’s a moment in the second act: the “Guy” and the “Girl”, after spending all day recording a demo for the Guy, go to a cliffside in Dublin and without outright saying it decide that it is better to remain friends rather than pursue the romantic tension that they have. The Guy goes back to the pub, and sings the solo “Sleeping”.

The song is a little over four minutes. That doesn’t sound that long, but during that four minutes, I had a moment.

For a moment, I was transported to that theatre watching Of Mice and Men. I was transported to the UMKC theatre watching the Kansas City Rep’s production of Company in the late 1990s. I was transported to the Fox Theatre in St. Louis watching Wicked in the early 2000s. I was transported to the small converted space in the Kansas City bottoms to watch The Pillowman in 2011. I was transported to the ‘under 99 seat’ Boston Court’s production of The Twentieth-Century Way in 2013. And yes, I was transported to the Phoenix Theatre’s production of Once I caught in 2014.

During that approximate four minutes, my theatre life flashed before my eyes.

Rehearsing “Comedy of Errors”. Photo courtesy the Alcott Arts Center.

I thought about that high school English teacher, Mr. Becherer, and how he was still resonating me years later when I directed a community theatre production of Comedy of Errors.

I thought about my drama teacher from college, marsha morgan (lowercase intentional), who I didn’t quite get along with during college but then became very good friends with, now residing in a care home due to her Alzheimer’s.

Finally, I thought about my mother, who passed away in January, and realized how much she had supported my love of theatre, driving me to productions before I had my own transportation and then not objecting when I wanted to drive into St. Louis as a teenager to see others.

I will always love all types of mediums from books to television to YouTube videos, and I have had all of them touch me and connect me to the world. However, they all do it in different ways. Theatre has an ability the others don’t of bringing me completely into the moment, an intimacy that feels almost presumptuous in nature. And that will always be important, but even more so today where the world seems to be shrinking.

“The theatre is an empty box, and it is our task to fill it with fury and ecstasy and revolution.” So says the character of Geoffrey Tennant in the first season of the television show Slings & Arrows. And when that happens, like with Once, I remember the transforming power of theatre.

You can see my other essays here