Enough is enough! Sitting around the house waiting to be “healed” is not going to cure my various ailments, and like the rest of you, I ain’t going to get any younger! It had been well over a year since my last theatre binge, so finally, in early May, I ran away from home again, this time for only three nights, and went to play in New York City. This time, I took fewer guesses, determined to see the best. Guided by the critics, grabbing discounts where I could, and avoiding the top shows with five hundred plus dollar tickets. I’m still eager to see the Hamiltons, etc., but they will have to wait for the prices to come down (should I live long enough). Still, I pulled out all the stops: I squeezed in five plays that I’d rank among the best of my theatre-bingeing years: Dear Evan Hanson; Travesties, Come from Away, The Band’s Visit, and Mlimi’s Tale. More on them coming up in the next few days, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you haven’t yet, please subscribe to http://www.viewinthedark.com , spread the word, and feel free to respond to any blog entry. the more the better. It’s easy: Every difference of opinion makes for a lively and welcome discussion. And of course I would deeply appreciate it if you could rank the entry with a simple “like.” (… if you did).
As most of you know, New York is my primary playground and a huge source for energy renewal. My game is to take in as much theatre as I can while spending as few nights in a hotel as possible. I’ve been playing it for fifty some years. Laughing and crying and fuming in the presence of good plays has become a major source of my own spirituality and understanding of our human condition and contradictions, of who I am and the way the world is, of how to get around the blockades, solve the problems, and cope with failure and success. Friends planning trips to the big city took to asking me what to see. And since I desperately needed a way to keep track of all those plays and how they affected me, since 2010, I’ve been writing/blogging about it all in http://www.viewinthedark.com (not to be confused by the Agent Carter TV episode “A View in the Dark.”). Feel free to check out the one without the “A”, and take a look in the archives for 122 past posts.
New York is of course not my only theatrical high. I also teach, write, act in, and direct plays. Some truly dynamic local productions have resonated in my head for years. Among my other destinations are Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center and others in Washington, the rare trip to theatre meccas like London or Chicago, the Shaw and Stratford Festivals in Canada, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival over in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For that matter, whenever my wife and I are planning a trip to anywhere in range, the first thing I research is “What’s at the theatre?”
Joan wisely chooses not to come with me on my binge trips. Our New York visits together involve much saner scheduling: two or three plays at most in four or five nights, with plenty of time for sit-down meals, book stores, galleries, museums, naps, and walks in the park or on the High Line — all perfectly delightful activities which I tend to shun for lack of time on my solo excursions.
MY FIRST FUNK: What have they done
with the Empire State Building?
This time I arrived in New York on a cloudy Friday afternoon on Amtrak’s northbound Northeast Regional. As we approached the city and crossed the Jersey flats before turning for the tunnel into Manhattan, one look out the right window set the theme for this trip: Time is a trickster. “Normally” that impressive view of the city’s towers takes one’s breath away, but something was wrong: The “new” Freedom Tower downtown sparkled as a ray of sun poked thru the clouds, a dramatic and impressive sight. But wait: Looking uptown, where was the Empire State Building? Still there, but now dwarfed by two hi-rise luxury apartment complexes under construction on the Weehawken, NJ waterfront. They are not as tall of course, but because they were so much closer to Amtrak’s path they appeared to hover over the Empire State like parents over a small child. Suddenly, that magnificent defining view of the cityscape is gone forever. And “New York” was sadly less real, more a passing phase. In one stroke, words like “new” and “normally” became meaningless. So off I went into some kind of existential funk, made worse on the streets of Manhattan itself. Cranes are everywhere, sometimes two or more to a block, since it’s cheaper to go up than spread out. Even within the city, once iconic views of the Empire State Building have already been obliterated, despite the strong objections of responsible designers, historians, and city residents and tourists.
IN MEMORIUM: LINCOLN PLAZA CINEMAS
My funk would quickly be doubled, when I soon learned that my movie home away from home for its entire existence had shut its doors forever. May it rest in peace! The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was my stopping place between shows. Since 1981, I have always counted on its six screens to offer up classic, foreign, indie and other art house films that would never show up back home. Its audiences conducted great lobby discussions, occasionally verging on physical assault. We were all film buffs who cared deeply about what we were seeing and the insights we gained there. In its ideal location across from Lincoln Center, it was also the best place in the city to get out of the rain, the best possible way to kill a few spare hours between shows, and the best possible way to experience fine cinema. It also offered rapid bus connections to the theatre district and to my hotel. Damn it! It was a “permanent” fixture in my life. So much for “permanent”! Yet another candidate for etymological extinction!
RISE HAS FALLEN
Bad news is supposed to hit in threes, so I was prepared for the capper when it came. I picked up the N.Y.Times to read that NBC had cancelled Rise, their new show about the process of mounting a highly controversial high school theatre production of Spring Awakening, a rock musical about teen self discovery, including sexual awakening, masturbation, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, suicide, etc. Rise was one of a crop of challenging new NBC series like Parenthood and This is Us, dealing with more realistic portrayals of human nature, and the complications of adolescence in particular. If we’ve learned little else in the last months, it’s to pay attention to our offspring. Ironically, during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, in Parkland, FL, 65 drama students and their teacher/director, Melody Herzfeld hid silently in their classroom, where they had been preparing a production of Spring Awakening. A fifteen-year veteran drama teacher, Ms. Herzfeld was hailed as a hero, and this Sunday night, she will be awarded a Tony Award for excellence in theatre education. Many of her students, including Cameron Kasky and Emma Gonzalez, were among the active founders of the “Never Again” movement, of whom she may be justifiably proud.
I was a high school drama teacher for a substantial part of my career, which of course is why I now allow myself to get further sidetracked. So please bear with me. In addition to dealing with administrations, parents, and adolescent angst, I spent a great deal of time with the American Alliance for Theatre in Education and its predecessors, pushing nationally for more and better theatre programs in our schools. As reiterated by Tony and Theater Wing sponsors, “(Theater) is transformative — it has the power to celebrate the best of times, and it has the power to help heal us and comfort us in the worst of times.” For that reason, in the past several years the Tonys have begun to include an Outstanding Drama Teacher of the Year in their ceremony and acknowledgements.
I find it especially heartening when teacher-directors like Melody Herzfeld earn their fair share of recognition for pushing thousands of students to seek better understanding of themselves through the magic of theatre; and now a major TV network mounts a show focusing on two stubborn and talented drama teachers making tough choices and taking chances. The cast includes Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor and a stunning group of super-talented but vulnerable youngsters. Drama classes and productions are among the best educational tools our schools have. When they are shut down or restricted for lack of funding or artistic differences, we do our students a major disservice. And when a major TV Network shuts down a program bringing all those issues and more to the forefront, I find it extraordinarily disheartening. Okay, so maybe it had some occasionally clunky dialogue, and one or two naïve plot lines, and maybe audiences were reluctant to watch it in sufficient numbers But it was a well-done, important show, about real people and real problems, and it was true — a rare enough find in TV Land. Will somebody from another network bring it back … please? …
… Probably not! Next best thing? Read the book on which Rise was based: Michael Sokolove’s Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater. Now out in paperback, it’s the dramatic true story of Lou Volpe, who for forty years taught drama at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. You might also want to read his online interview in Playbill or an extensive New York Times article about him, to understand how his drama program and his first school production of Spring Awakening changed lives, changed the school, and changed the town.
Yes, this was a long digression, an especially personal rant not necessarily typical of my entries on View in the Dark. My three-part funk continued until I took my Friday night seat at the Music Box Theater to see Dear Evan Hanson. In a flashall the funks were gone, consumed by the magic onstage. That’s next up. Give me a day or two.