Full disclosure. I was a theater major. I moved to New York City to write plays and, somehow, get them to Broadway. I still hold those dreams, but they were made manifest in television and movies instead, so no complaints from me. I worked steadily in regional theaters and was commissioned to write a couple of full-length plays, so I felt artistically fulfilled while being broke. As the great Moss Hart said, “You can make a killing in the theater but not a living.” I made neither, but I had a heart full of hope.
It was popular in the 1980’s and 90’s to hold staged readings of your plays with actors for a small audience. I worked with some of the great actors in theater companies including The Italian American Playwrights Forum. I started an all-women comedy troupe (an extension of the original group at Saint Mary’s in South Bend, Indiana). A nightclub gig is a lot like the theater, except the audience is drunk. When I dodged a Swedish meatball thrown at the stage in a little club called “The Horn of Plenty” in Greenwich Village, I made a silent vow to myself that my performing days were over. I didn’t get into the performing arts to work in a roadhouse environment, at least, that’s what I told myself at the time.
When you let go of one dream in a creative life, a new one emerges on cue. It’s as if the clock itself knows you have more time for something new and makes a space so you might create it. So much of the creative life is being in tune with the world around you- an energy field that you must tap into to be productive. It’s why, during the COVID crisis (which continues) some of us thrived, while others of us dived into a vat of ice cream. Two absolutely understandable reactions to the end of the world as we knew it, of course- but one is creative, while the other can be destructive- or at least prevent you from getting on with the project you are supposed to be creating. I have learned that the destructive path is only more work, so I avoid tearing anything down in life unless it’s moving a wall for a bigger bathroom.
The theater is my sanctuary. When I enter a theater, I am in my intellectual and emotional church. The scents of chalk and paint, the heavy perfume that lingers in the air from the matinee crowd, and the feeling that velvet seats have when you snap them open to sit, bring an instant sense of belonging and possibility- of creativity, of life itself. Granted, the Broadway theater seats feel like you’re flying coach on a commuter to Istanbul, they are small, and you can feel the outer thigh of the stranger sitting next to you, or feel the breath of the patron behind you when he squirms, but it’s a small price to pay when you have the privilege of seeing a play or musical on Broadway. The excitement of the live performance outweighs any discomfort. In fact, you don’t notice being squished when the show is mesmerizing.
Welcome back Wicked, Hamilton, The Lion King, Chicago and Waitress. Welcome back actors, and playwrights, designers, stage crews and builders, electricians and costumes, pit orchestras filled with musicians. Welcome back.
When I was young and moved to New York City, I couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway show (until of course, I discovered TKTS, and then the evening gloves came on and all bets were off). I learned how to experience Broadway for free- an old secret passed down generation to generation by the poor artists who had moved to New York City before me, taught me that you could attend the second act of the show only. It was no problem with the musicals because of the beautiful device called REPRISE. You could get the gist standing in the back of the theater for the second act- and have half the experience, which one learns, is often how things go in other areas of life. Sometimes you only get half- but that half can be a life changing. Theater is life, or at least, it’s the attempt to connect what is real to our dreams. Now, that’s not half- that’s the whole enchilada.