Howard Sherman: What We Bring to the Theatre
In the days before I married, in the days before the advent of mp3s and i-devices, the soundtrack of my life was provided by the radio. Primarily listened to while driving, I had an elaborate series of preset stations for my eclectic tastes, geographically diverse enough to allow me to travel between Philadelphia and Boston without searching for stations. Yet, in the wake of each romantic breakup, they all seemed to be a single station programmed specifically to torment me. Every time a relationship ended, popular music seemed a conspiracy — every song was either about the desire for love, the thrill of current love or the desperation of lost love. Who, I wondered, were these sadists?
Of course, the programming was the same it had always been. What had changed was my perception of it. Bereft, expressions of love were taunts; plaints of longing or loss egged me deeper into despair. “Sylvia’s Mother” could reduce me to tears. It wasn’t good.
This effect is true in every aspect of our lives, since we are emotional creatures and view everything, especially art and entertainment, subjectively, not objectively, no matter how hard we might try. For all the talk about how theatre is different every night because of the interplay between actors and audiences, the real difference is found in what each member of the audience brings with them to the theatre: a rough day at the office, a misbehaving child, an undigested bit of beef. Theatres work very hard to create an optimal situation (excepting, for some reason, leg room) for the consumption of dramatic work, but they cannot know or in any way control the many experiences which each member of the audience brings to bear on the event.
I share all of this by way of prologue, because the effect of the day to day on theatergoing has been much on my mind for the past few weeks. Why that time period? Because three and a half weeks ago, my elderly father fell and sustained a traumatic brain injury (believe it or not, this had happened once before, just a year earlier, and he came back from it beautifully). As a result, I have been spending roughly every other day waking early, departing New York for the hospital in New Haven at about 6:45 am, arriving by 9 to speak with the attending physician during rounds, and heading back to New York by noon. Then I nap and, given the time of year, see a show in the evening.
Why did I keep up my theatergoing? Simply because that is what I do. I wanted to retain a sense of normalcy. My father has been seriously ill many times in my life, and always survived. I needed to do all that I could do for him, but for me, the less I broke my patterns, the better.
So the question is whether my response to the theatre I’ve seen in the past three weeks would have been different if my father had not been ill, if my days had been less complicated. Of course, I will never know. I have, to be sure, laughed in the theatre these past three weeks; I have not once cried. I have experienced joy; I have been dismayed and feel quite certain that I will never, willingly, see some of those shows again.
I also did something unprecedented: I walked out of a show mid-act. Was my anger and impatience at the story played out before me a true aesthetic appraisal, or did this show somehow become the repository of my concerns for my hospital-bound father? I really can’t say. I might have merely been exercising my own natural taste, since the kind usher who showed to me a door where my departure would be least disruptive tried to persuade me to stay. “It gets better,” she whispered, suggesting that perhaps others had made this mid-show journey. “Not for me,” I replied.
Was it fair for me to keep seeing shows at a time when so much was weighing on my mind? Perhaps, for the artists and my relationship to their work, it was not. But I was not about to sit home, passively watching TV. I was going to do, to the best of my ability, what I always do, which is go to the theatre. After all, the tickets were arranged, I couldn’t spend every minute with my father and even if I did there was little I could do for him. For me, keeping up the familiar seemed wisest. If I didn’t enjoy shows fully, if I can never enjoy those shows in the future because of those first impressions and associations, that is my loss and my error. But I have also been suffering from severe neck and shoulder pain for quite some time, recently diagnosed as bulging and herniated discs, so that has also influenced how I have perceived theatre over several years. I may have not given certain shows the fairest seeing because of physical pain, just as the emotional impact of my father’s injury may have clouded my responses more recently. My thoughts, my physical condition have always colored my theatergoing, so even at a time of extreme stress, I never really thought to stop.
As I write, it is four days since my father died and two days since his funeral. I was at a show only hours before he passed and I will return to the theatre, for a comedy, in two days time, with at least two more shows on tap in the following four days. I will carry memory of him as the lights go down, just as I carry with me the memory of others I have lost in all that I do. But because my dad was not much of a theatregoer, the environment will not specifically evoke him (though the play, or future plays, might). The interior of a theatre will instead signal to me that despite a loss, life goes on; after all, between vocation and avocation, I have spent so much of my life in theatres, they are familiar, comforting places for me to be, my refuge, my sanctuary. I will always carry in delight and despair, happiness and worry, and countless other feelings. And the theatre may well give feelings back to me, intentionally or otherwise. But that, as it always has, depends on me.