In some ways this starts, as so many things do, with the death of my mother more than a decade ago. And it also starts with my four-year-old daughter who recently made up her first joke: “Why did the goose cross the road? To have lunch with a chicken.”
We’re smack-dab in the hot and heavy part of the production season. If you’re in the theatre, there’s either a big fall production, or folks are starting to ramp up the holiday entertainment – a good panto or another production of A Christmas Carol to bring in the holiday traffic.
Where I am, we’re doing something that seemed like a good idea when I started – three plays in rotating rep. With a small company with small resources, we’re probably doing something that’s slightly impossible. But if you can’t do the impossible, what’s the point? Right?
How did we get here?
I don’t know that I know that much about death. I don’t believe I’m a particularly morbid person. I’ve had the dubious honor of having been in the ranks of the clinically depressed. It’s no joke. And it’s no fun. I got better. So I’ve had my dark times, but thinking about death has been an elusive thing for me.
When my mother died, it was very tough. She was a woman who loved movies and plays. She would go to a play, and call me on the phone to tell me about it. “How was it?,” I’d ask. “Well, the set was beautiful,” she’d reply. About the only way she really knew how to articulate a reply was to talk about the scenic design.
But with her death and my aging, I’m less worried about death than I used to be, I think. And, if we just die dead with no particular after-life, I’m fussed less and less by the prospect. A nice long rest huddled next to my nearest and dearest on a hillside somewhere. . . . well, there are worse things to imagine in the future than that.
So that’s part of it.
But it also has to do with comedy and women.
I’ve lived around women my whole life. I have three sisters. Many, if not most, of my best friends over the years have tended mostly to be women. Most of my supervisors over the years have been women. And now, of course, I live with my wife and daughter.
A young daughter provides a papa the opportunity to really see the Barbie culture that works very hard to insinuate itself into the lives of young girls. It’s hard to escape. I spent a long afternoon in a toy store looking at dolls, working to find a doll that would be in the Barbie family, but be more appropriate for a girl – that is, a doll far less sexualized than Barbie tends to be. I finally found one. Yea! I did it! I was genuinely proud of my accomplishment.
And then, of course, my daughter got a passel of regular Barbies from a variety of other folks on that very same birthday. And all of my work was for naught.
In casting about for a play to do last spring, I read a stack of scripts that featured strong women roles. I hit upon Low Level Panic by Clare McIntyre. It’s a slightly older play. But curiously – and sadly – much of the content of the play is just as applicable today as it was in the 1980s. In some ways, even more so. The play focuses on three young women sharing a home in London. They get ready for a party. We learn that one of the women had sexual violence inflicted upon her. So the play has a lot about women’s body image, how the woman and her roomies deal with the aftermath of sexual violence, and sexuality generally.
Early in the play one of the women wishes she could just be six inches taller, with the same level of body fat, then . . . .then she would look the way she want to look. How many times in my life have I heard women express that view?
Where I am, women speaking frankly about sexuality and their feelings about their bodies is considered a little bit on the wild side. So I thought, “I have three actresses who could really do this play. Why not?”
But it’s not that easy.
Where I work, I have many more folks who would like to be part of a production than can fit in a play for three women. So, what is to be done?
At the moment, we don’t have a great supply of singers, but would like to dance. So the traditional musical was out. But what about a play “with dance?”
The Russian Symbolists were probably crazy. But they were my kind of crazy. In the years before the first World War, they imagined a theatre that had curious admixtures of comedy and philosophy, deep ideas about human life and touchstones of everyday life.
If you’ve studied theatre at university, you here about plays that you’ll likely never get to see. One of those plays is Balaganchik by Alexander Blok. Blok was a wildly handsome, incredibly talented poet. And he hung around with Vsevolod Meyerhold a while. Blok wrote a poem about a balagan. Then he turned it into a play.
In Russian culture, the balagan is the puppet show that you’d see if you went to a rural fair. The title then is often translated as either “The Puppet Show” or “The Fairground Booth.” Both translations work reasonably well.
If you were to read the lines of Blok’s play aloud, it would take about 10 minutes or less. At first glance it doesn’t appear to be the basis for a full-length evening.
Yet, the text also calls for several dances.
Blok ingeniously works traditional commedia d’ell arte characters into his play. Pierrot and Harlequin both date Columbina. It’s a play about life, death, and romance.
And it’s a comedy. Both Blok and Meyerhold indicated that while they were interested in the Symbolist elements of putting on a play – they were emphatic that it’s also a comedy. Maybe a farce.
So, that seemed like a second play to do. It would give folks an opportunity to learn more about dance and have some fun. But would a modern audience know about Harlequin and Pierrot in a meaningful way? Probably not.
So, just because we can, we’re starting the evening off with a curtain-raiser – A Merry Death by Nocolai Evreinov.
Harlequin has been told that if he sleeps more in a day than he parties, that is the day he will die. And so it happens that the play starts at 8 pm. And Harlequin has slept all day. But if Harlequin were to die, wouldn’t it be a merry death?
The insane thing was to mount all three shows simultaneously.
In some ways these two evenings of entertainment differ strongly from each other. At first glance the gritty reality of sexual violence seems a universe apart from the Symbolist antics performed by Harlequin and Pierrot.
In the end, though, all of the shows affirm the great blessing of life.
My mother, a slip of a thing, in her 70’s still worried about her figure and how she looked. My four-year-old daughter has been initiated into the culture of Barbie. But she’s starting to intuit the utility of comedy – the joy creating something that can make people laugh.
Every one of us has days in which simply getting out of bed in the morning seems like a crazy notion. Illness, the death of a loved one, family discord, the dissolution of a love relationship, and chaos and tragedy in the wide world can make the idea of entering the world a questionable proposition on some days.
And that’s why we’re doing three plays. The everyday life of everyday people is filled with such amazing wonders and such amazing problems, life itself seems slightly impossible.
But if we can’t do the impossible, what’s the point?