This is Theater

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
Life of Theseus by Plutarch (75 A.C.E.)

It is 1 a.m. and I am riding in the car of our casting director over the Bay Bridge talking about what to look for in an actor. I deal with words most of the time, so this is all new to me, and I am loving it. This is the second time I have found myself in this woman’s car, and it is the second time we have had this conversation. Next Tuesday we go out to Marin for the opening of Peter Nachtrieb’s boom (apparently the most produced play in the States this year), and I hope my education continues.

We are driving back from THE BAR, a student-manned, colleague-hosted watering hole in our theater that opens between 2 and 6 nights a week (depending on the show and interest) from when the show goes down until everyone wants to leave. The drinks are priced at cost. Everyone—cast, crew, front of house, staff, students, board members—is encouraged to attend when they can. When the Brief Encounter ensemble was here, they frequently busted out instruments and jammed the night away. Since they’ve gone, it has been quieter. But not last night, because some of our students decided it would be a good idea to commandeer the space for a poor-man’s production of Dutchman.

It wasn’t a good idea. It was a great idea.

With a budget of nothing and a set made of chairs, they transformed the room in the dangerous subway that contains Amiri Baraka’s brutal one-act. I read Dutchman for the first time in grad school and it is up there with Oleanna as a play that left the most mental scar tissue in its wake. If you don’t know the play, read it, or read a summary of it somewhere else. I am not going to get into it. There is just too much to say about it once you get started. Suffice it to say, this production did Baraka proud.

It did all of us proud.
This is what theater should be. Unapologetic and without excuse. You don’t have a lighting grid, you grab a fucking flashlight. You don’t have a soundboard, you get three extra actors to play the rats in the subway and have them chirp and scamper around the feet of your audience to create the environment.

If there is life, there can be theater.

An hour before, I was in another room of our theater helping facilitate a reading of the plays that won our David Mamet Writing Contest. We are in the middle of our run of Mamet’s November, and to accompany it we held a national contest of write-alikes. We received about 50 entries and cut it down to the best 10 to present in staged-reading format performed by our students. All of the playwrights, save one, showed up. Were they amazing plays? They were three minutes long each: how amazing can they be? But they were fun. And the audience was fun. And the energy was right. And the idea was right.

Two hours before that I am over at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a co-production of L’histoire du solda with 4 of our students and 9 of the Conservatory’s musicians. We arrive early, and I walk the halls of their school. In the basement, some one is practicing on the some instrument that reminds me of a higher-pitched marimba. On the top floor, there is a patio that looks up at the sky. Sound proof rehearsal rooms surround it, and as students come in and out, one catches snippets of their amazing talent. I hear the sad song of a lonely flautist before I leave.

The show itself, known in English as The Soldier’s Tale, was an amazing fusion of music, dance, storytelling, vaudeville, and acting. We were there for the dress rehearsal because tonight’s two performances were sold out weeks ago. It was fascinating to compare the instruments of musicians—so tangible and comprehensible—to those of our actors, but mostly it was just a joy to watch them rejoice in each others’ talents as they watched one another perform.

Six hours before that I am at our studio theater in the building that houses our school and offices. Our artistic director has workshopped Racine’s Britannicus with our second years. It is the kind of play you have to be in the mood for, and I am in the mood for it even though it is noon on a Friday. The richness of the language (translated from the French) and the waste-nothing style of Racine impresses upon me the importance of craft and discipline, on top of genius. And once again—or, really, for the first time that day—I am amazed by our students.

Today I am right where I want to be. I am knee-deep in Plutarch, Ovid, and Seneca excavating the truth about Phèdre’s unfortunate love for her stepson. We open Racine’s Phèdre next January, and after yesterday’s reading of Britannicus I am excited.

But I am even more excited by the possibilities our students showed me over the course of 12 hours of theater yesterday. The classics never get old, they showed me, and  language will always prevail, they showed me. The fusion of music and movement and theater is as complicated as putting the right people in the same room; anything is possible for the fearless; the space been the arts is merely the difference between instruments, and it can be easily closed; and poverty will never squash talent and passion. They showed me.


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