Saturday, November 20, 2010

"You Can't Take It With You"

I was a "theater geek" in high school.  Early in my freshman year I was introduced to Oral Interpretation, and soon thereafter, to the One Act Play competition.  I was immediately hooked.  The lights, the make-up, the costumes, the almost unbearable, nauseating tension, tangible, crackling backstage as we waited to make our first entrance.  Taking the first step onto the stage, and the exhilaration as that tension flooded away as I delivered my first lines of the show.  The energy of the performance, sharp like a razor, honed by the tight-stretched nerves of each of the other actors.  Feeding off of the response of the crowd, our characters expanding and overwhelming our true personalities with each laugh or gasp from the audience, and feeding off of the other actors as the same happened to them.  And the applause, oh the applause, as the cast bowed at the curtain call, each of us trying to catch our breath as our character disappeared and we returned to ourselves.  To be on stage was to empty myself, pour myself out in front of a crowd.  It was like running to end of the highest diving board and jumping, without looking, into the coldest, deepest water, then struggling back to the surface and gasping breath after breath of sweet life-giving air.  And then, the surreal quality of having finished the day following the last performance.  A part of me was dead and gone. 

Though I did not receive a part in the One Act play and though I was only an extra in the spring production of "Grease," I was at every audition for the rest of my tenure at Wall High School.  As a Junior, I was recognized at a district competition as a superior actor for my role in "Dragons," but the climax of my acting career came that same year when in the spring, I played Milky-White, a cow, in our school production of "Into the Woods."  This part was supposed to be played by a plastic cow on wheels.  I begged the director to let me play it; it was by far my favorite role in a play.  A year later I graduated, and I never gave a second thought to the stage.  I had no interest in acting in college theater, though I remained then, as now, a patron of the arts.  My interest in performing was momentarily piqued when I was required to don makeup and wigs for our summer production of 5th and Broadway, but other than that, I find I remain little inclined to mount the stage.

I am not altogether certain why I was able to give up theater so easily.  I was never really an incredible actor, but I took a lot of pleasure from my time on the stage.  Perhaps I was burnt out by the end of high school.  Regardless, I have had, since then, little desire to act.  In fact, I have become extremely self-conscious about it.  These days it is very hard for me to play a role in a skit.  And yet, last night, as I watched the St. Thomas More High School production of "You Can't Take It With You," I was a little envious and more than a little nostalgic.

The show was very good.  The set was relatively simple, but the script was fantastic, and the casting was inspired.  Each of the characters was well played, and every actor appeared to be having fun with his part.  Along with the rest of the audience, I found myself laughing uproariously as the plot wound its way toward its inevitable resolution.  It is no wonder this play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  I would have loved to have played any of the parts in this production, from a firecracker making father, to the drunken actress who spends most of the second act sleeping on the couch.  Eccentricities abound among the characters of this play, and I suppose in the end, that is the thing that makes me nostalgic.  

Theater is the refuge for those who find themselves a little odd.  It is a place where one gets to be a different person for a season.  In high school, this was a blessed relief.  Trying to figure out who I was, theater freed me to be any number of people, and to try on a variety of different lives -  a British intellectual, a disturbed teenager, a nameless member of a high school gang, the cruel husband of an adulterous wife, a swordsman dressed in black, an evil henchman, and a lovable cow.  On the stage, I could do and get away with things I could not do and get away with in real life.

In the seminary, a man necessarily discovers who he is, and it becomes less and less pressing to want to be like someone else.  Along the way I guess I discovered that real life was far better than the scripted life of a character on stage.  True self-giving was far deeper and more meaningful than to pour out a pseudo-life through a character.  To be truly alive as me was far more sustaining than to feel tingly and alive with the energy of a show.  But, theater helped me get there.  I pray it does the same for the cast of "You Can't Take it With You." 

1 comment:

  1. I know that feeling: once you've participated in theater, especially in the One-Act contest, you never watch a show the same way again. Some remnant of the actor (and in my case, director) in you can't help doing a little analysis, thinking of how you would have handled that challenge on the stage. I think that level of artistic appreciation is a good thing.

    And that "refuge"—you're right! Theater provides a "home" for some kids who don't fit in other high school niches. Theater may be the only chance some kids get to shine in school. It is thus vital we keep theater and the arts alive in our schools.


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