Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Serious Drama

Serious theatre” and I … don’t seem to bang into each other much.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy it when we do. Given the right presenters, I can thoroughly enjoy an evening of Shakespeare, for example. (In performance, ya don’t really need all those footnotes translating 16th century English; you get the gist … you just kinda de-focus your brain a bit and receive the tone of voice and body language, kinda like stepping back and getting a wider-angle view of the scenery.)

I just have much more experience with silly theatre – whether of the children’s-theatre variety or not. Slapstick and bad puns and pratfalls, and books and lyrics that you don’t need Cliff’s Notes to wrap your brain around.

One summer at the fabled creative arts day camp, I participated in the production of a show called “Left Out”, which – in short – was the first time I’d experienced a children’s musical that was a Serious Play With Funny Lines. Its climactic scene, involving the betrayal of the eventual villain by just about everyone else in the cast, was one of those very rare examples of a children’s musical eliciting gasps of surprise from its audience.

But, again, I haven’t trafficked in that sort of drama as a matter of course.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the tougher stuff.

Probably the first play I ever saw which definitely counted as Serious Theatrical Literature came courtesy of a college visit. The college drama guild was performing a fluffy little piece called “The Crucible”.

Holy. o_O

I remember the screaming, and the gnashing of teeth, and the accusations of witchcraft, and the complete and utter lack of a toe-tapping finale.

And not much else. No knock on the collegiate thespians, either. The caterwauling was convincing, and it was in the script, after all. It was impressive; but I determined (with all the life experience of a 17-year-old) that in general, I wasn’t so fond of Dark Foreboding Followed By Shrieking in my stage plays.

So, as I have endeavored in the past several years to dream up some theatrical creations of my own, audiences may note that I tend much more toward quips than angst; more toward character self-examination via brightly-lit song-and-dance than via Hamlet-esque chest-clutching soliloquy in a lonely follow-spot.

Honestly, friends … I wrote a show about chickens and turkeys in a barnyard. It wasn’t exactly entitled “Death of a Poultry Salesman”, either.

So, regarding the coming-to-grips with Serious Theatre, as well as other forms of art and performance, I’ve discovered that sometimes “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You may not know a thing about sculpture, about poetry slams, about baroque music, about modern dance … but you go because you know a name associated with it. (How many Star Trek fans were introduced to Shakespeare because Patrick Stewart was a purveyor?)

Hold that thought.

This past weekend, I took advantage of that little gateway, and quite enjoyed myself.

I ventured into the eastern sliver of Cambridge, Massachusetts (via the newly-resuscitated MBTA) to attend a play, the final event in a fortnight-long arts festival called “We Are…”

The festival’s organizers, The Poets’ Theatre [www.poetstheatre.org], described the event as “dedicated to the subject of Identity, with a particular focus on gender and race … we will present a series of exciting poets, dance companies, and theatrical events that highlight the urgent discussions about who we are as a nation that fill the headlines today.”

So. Not silly.

And maybe not the kind of thing that I would naturally gravitate toward, as has been previously chronicled.

The play was called “Gilding the Lily”. It was a semi-biographical, ninety-minute piece about Victorian-era English actress Lillie Langtry. The play’s press materials said, “the notorious 19th century celebrity takes the stage as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, but the American critics are unimpressed. Please join Lillie as she examines her life, loves and the Forest of Arden to discover the difficult art of letting our hearts be our craft.”

Okay, there were actually some laughs.

Some of them were in response to Ms. Langtry’s quips; and some were of the sympathetic and somewhat uncomfortable variety, as the audience is reminded of the differences between how we view the world and how the world actually may be. Very few belly laughs; lots more knowing murmurs.

So, an unmistakable air of a character holding back the incursion of realities she may not wish to face directly, just yet.

It was a terrific evening.

It was a one-person show.

It was a play written, produced, performed (and, one must assume, promoted) by one single person.

There’s a reason why I always participated in school theatrical productions from the safety of the orchestra pit: I’m no good at memorizing lines of dialogue. At all. Unless I spend years living with them, and that is not hyperbole.

And a one-person show is in fact one gigantic line of dialogue. I had nothing but admiration for folks who memorize a single role in a show, and can be reminded of what they’re supposed to be doing, if necessary, by the other actors.

If you experience memory block in a one-person show, there’s no safety net. The silence, I imagine, might seem many decades long; the focus of the spotlight, blinding and unforgiving. I’ll keep my show music safely in front of me, thank you.

On top of which, if you’re presenting a one-person show of your own creation, you are laying yourself doubly or quadruply bare. This is my work; this is my performance; if you like it, that’s wonderful; if you don’t, there’s nowhere to deflect the critique. It’s all on you. No risk, no reward, they say. The rewards, I imagine, are grand. The peril, I suspect, is similarly sweeping.

As the play finished, and the lengthy ovation subsided, I leaned over to my theater-going comrade (who doubles as a lifelong friend) and whispered, “I can’t do any of that.” She chuckled madly.

I left you hanging, a while back.

There was that sometimes frustrating “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” aphorism.

This phrase more often applies to securing employment or gigs or similar opportunities for one’s self. In this case, I turned it to my advantage: I accessed a piece of dramatical artistry that I may not have actively sought out otherwise. A different sort of opportunity.

And I did so because I knew the play’s creator, and promoter, and presenter.

Her name is Susannah Melone.

Something like three decades ago, she was a creative-arts day-camp student, acting on stage in the middle of that serious play with funny lines called “Left Out”. I was a member of the camp faculty pit orchestra. And until this weekend, I hadn’t seen her live and in-person, for most of those three decades.

We camp counselors occasionally would wonder which of the on-stage kids might one day do what they were doing, but for a living, professionally … and perhaps dimly wondered if we’d ever get to see them in action.

Yes, of course I came to your show,” I said to her afterward, when she suggested (overestimatingly!) that my presence at the show was any kind of a big deal.

For openers, it’s what we do for friends. Come and support them. Woo hoo! and Rah rah rah guys! and all that.

But via her social media postings over the past few years, I’d gotten the sense, however remotely, of the work and research it took her to wrestle “Gilding the Lily” into being, and of the perspiration and desperation and inspiration and outright love that it took to haul the thing onto stages in New York and, now, “home” to Boston.

And it didn’t take much observation to sense that this was going to be For Real.

Because along with being a producer and writer and such, she’s an Actor. A card-carrying, professional, New York City-based actor, and (to my admittedly unpracticed eye, based at least on what I saw the other night) a great one.

For the first about six minutes, as she trod the boards, I was watching my friend Susannah, whom I hadn’t seen in ages.

For the next about eighty-four minutes, I was laughing and sighing with Lillie.

That, I mused afterward, must be how it’s done.


April 12, 2015 - Posted by | arts, CRCAP, entertainment, friends, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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