Thursday, March 19, 2020

Weekly Margin 2020, W12: What I Didn't See, and a Memory of Such Stuff

This week I was supposed to see The Minutes at Second Stage, Caroline or Change at Roundabout, and Love Life at City Center. While I'm still quietly holding out hope that I'll see Caroline eventually, I have no expectations for the others, and I'm glad everything's shut down to try to keep as many people safe as possible. For now, that has to be enough.

I keep thinking I should make my usual list of the Spring season, look into ticket lotteries, rush policies, their presence on tdf. Making this list has been on my To Do calendar for a few weeks. Now it seems like a task designed to invite more heartbreak, wondering which shows are never to be.

I thought instead of looking forward into an unknowable future, and with no current theater to discuss, perhaps I should look back further.

When I was a kid, Virginia Tech's drama program presented a devised piece called Such Stuff, an ensemble of players telling a variety of stories--some fairy tales, some legends, some myths--and singing songs. The uniting theme was dreams and dreaming, the title of the show itself an allusion to Prospero's line from Shakespeare's The Tempest, "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on." All this to suggest we were all collectively dreaming the evening together, a beautiful tapestry of banshees, of Rapunzel and Anansi, of a tiny rabbit pretending to be a hideous ogre, of a floating island, of three sons seeking their fortune, of twelve dancing princesses, of a surprise elephant.

Everything about the design suggested this same tapestry: a set of lofted wooden platforms and sets of stairs, hideyholes, and costumes of mishmash layered over itself. Several of the players carried instruments. The props were an equally seemingly-improvised collection of items (Rapunzel's twins, for example: two bouncing rubber basketball-sized balls). The style of performance was one of unity and collaboration: everyone narrated, everyone became a character (sometimes still self-narrating), everyone sang and danced, and helped build each new space as needed.

It's my first memory of seeing a show presented in this style, though it's now one very familiar to me (think Peter and the Starcatcher, Kate Hamill's Sense and Sensibility, or the recently closed The Inheritance. heck, even think the narrator role in Henry V). What I didn't know at the time was this show was the beginning of my deep and abiding affection for this particular theatrical device. I think of it now as the perfect actualization of what I love about theater and theatricality: that they are inherently collaborative (yes, even a solo show is collaborative, and I speak from experience). That theater is a compact among players and audience to enter the space and imagine together. It embraces the non-literalness of theater, that it is a medium steeped in metaphor, a place for us all to journey together, and for us each to be part of the story. It's a place for us all to dream. Of course a show like Such Stuff would be the perfect embodiment of that, a marriage of form and content.

It's also the first time I developed the now-slightly expensive habit of returning to a beloved show. I don't remember how long Such Stuff ran, but it can't have been more than a month, and yet I know I saw it at least three times. I kept going back. I went back enough that they recognized me from the stage and invited me to join them as one of the twelve dancing princesses in the second act.

I love Such Stuff. It changed my life. The song "Big Hair" (Rapunzel's big solo, natch) is still a favorite in my mom's house. Even my childhood bedroom, decorated like a circus caravan, seems a tribute to the show's aesthetic. It's been at least 25 years since I saw Such Stuff (oh god, how did that happen?) and I still have such a strong emotional connection to my memories of it.

I mourn the theater that we've currently lost, from the school and community productions up through Broadway and the West End. But mourning for me has always been a bittersweet experience: even in sadness, I can't help but remember the things I love about what's lost, and to be deeply, profoundly grateful for what I've been lucky enough to experience.

I invite you to share below your own memories of shows that changed your life, that stay with you to this day.

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