About a week ago, I could take COVID-19 and its variants no longer. I couldn’t do Netflix anymore. I needed community.
A long time ago, I decided that what makes theater a community — and Netflix not — is the interactive energy of a live audience. But I had a problem now.
If I were to go to live theater now, I would be breaking a promise that I had made to myself almost two years ago.
It was during our final table read of The Grace of God & Man Machine. I had paid no attention to talk of some virus in China. Mind The Art Entertainment had committed to produce my play and soon we would be opening off-Broadway.
That night I bought a steak, a glass of wine, and a single ticket to see Hadestown on Broadway in front of a sold-out audience. Hadestown would provide me that same energy that I would soon be part of when my play would go live off-Broadway.
I was beyond happy.
The next day as I took a train back to Baltimore, I realized something terrible was happening. Pretty soon thereafter, theaters started to close and slowly an unconscious darkness opened in me.
My hope of a second life as a playwright, which I had dreamed of even as a boy, so unfairly started to drift away, week after week and then month after month. But more horrible was the loss of not being a part of live theater.
I made the promise, and over the months I hardened my resolve, that I would not go to the theater until I could be part of that collective energy. I refused to settle for some anemic second-best with half-empty seats.
So why did I nonetheless decide last Wednesday, February 9th, to go to a new play: Behold, A Negress by Jacquline E. Lawton, at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore? Why was I breaking my promise when the theaters were not fully open?
What was it, really, that I so desperately missed?
I chose to go to Everyman Theater because it always has been a theater bustling with people and when the lights went down every seat was always filled with a loyal subscription audience. I had been going there for opening nights for over 30 years. I could count on them. Somehow, they could always seem to deliver that energy.
The day before the performance I received a phone call reminding me that I must bring evidence of my COVID vacations and booster and wear a mask the entire time I was in the theater. I confirmed that I had gotten all the vaccinations and would be wearing a mask.
It seemed to foreshadow my disappointment and to add salt to the wound.
When I entered, I had my mask on and my vaccination records ready. An assistant at the door checked off my name.
I noticed the list was not extensive.
As I entered the lobby it was strangely quiet. There was no familiar group of chatting people lining up for a glass of wine before the performance.
When I entered the theater, even after social distancing there were a lot of empty seats.
I looked around and there was a pit in my stomach. This wasn’t going to work.
Before every theater performance, I have a ritual. I observe the set and the stage and try to imagine how different it will be when I look back at it after the play is over and the actors are taking their bows.
I looked at the set and then gave it a second look. I was intrigued by how perfectly it had been designed and how beautiful the high ceilings and colors were in a post-revolutionary Paris drawing room and how carefully an artist’s easel had been displayed upstage center.
The set alone had caught my attention. It felt good. I had inadvertently crossed the threshold and now I did not want to be disappointed.
The lights went down. The music picked up and the play began.
The first of the two lead characters enters in a stunning dress and without a word, in a minute, establishes her character though action alone. The second lead enters, also in a stunning period piece costume, to establish her character and the framework of the play with minimum exposition. I was hooked.
Artfully, everything was in place.
I will give nothing away other than it was a 90-minute play with two principal actors and one supporting character. The two leads reveal a multifaceted relationship through many artful twists and turns and even briefly use dance to create the excitement of creating a portrait to change the political mind of Paris.
The play itself is about the character it takes to risk one’s self and one’s art form to save the moral authority of a culture.
Wasn’t that what this theater was actually doing by performing this play at all?
Slowly, something wonderful and unexpected rose up in me as I looked back at that stage as the actors took their bows before a small but very enthusiastic standing ovation.
It was pride, and then deep respect for this theater that would protect its patrons but also not compromise the quality of any aspect of a magnificent production, despite the cost.
It was that but there was also something else.
What was this unique little community?
The actors playing the roles, the director and tech professionals creating the atmosphere, and the willing suspension of disbelief and presence of the audience?
Then I laughed.
No other community would have a catchphrase as its answer: “The show must go on.”
I had foolishly demanded the fiction of perfection and had missed the perfection of the thing itself.
I left laughing and looking forward to rejoining this little community of feral souls who create, with a live audience, the sustaining vision for its larger community, by example.
November 22, 2022–December 20, 2022 at Theater Row, 410 42d street NYC, The Grace of God & The Mind Machine will finally open.