Why go to the theatre?

By Kitty Felde

Years ago, my mother and I shared season subscriptions to the Mark Taper Forum. Few plays stick in my memory – “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Robber Bridegroom” come to mind.

But it wasn’t the plays that my mother loved.

As a mom of seven who lived in the suburbs that straddled LA and Orange County, my mother relished the trips to “the city” where she would put on her bohemian clothes and devote as much attention to the audience as she would to the plays. “I’ve never seen such ugly people in all my life!” she’d say.

My mom’s been gone for more than 20 years. And as I sit through too many mediocre productions, I think back on what it was that she loved about going to the theatre: the drama, the spectacle, the unpredictability of real people. She wanted to be surprised, delighted, amused, amazed. How often do we get that onstage? Is this why theatre is in danger of dying?

This year, I saw one truly amazing production. It was an import from England, the Kneehigh Theater, on tour in DC. The company took an arthouse classic, “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s film about an affair at a train station and made magic onstage. The movie was based on a one-act Noel Coward play from the 1930’s called “Still Life,” but I can’t imagine the original was anything like the Kneehigh production.

The story was simple: ordinary people stuck in middle-aged ennui who hit it off in a train station tea room. But out of that simplicity, the company invented four different ways to put trains onstage – including smoke and sound, and a marvelous toy train that circled the stage. The most dramatic was a film of a racing train, projected onto a scrim that was half the height of the stage, stretched out from wing to wing by a cast member running past, with another cast member closing down the scrim as the train chugged by.

There was levitation in the play – characters being lowered from the upper levels of the set by fellow cast members. There was music and dancing. There were puppets playing the heroine’s children.

It was the most magical theatrical experience I can remember.

It perfectly fit everything my mother loved about going to the theatre: drama, spectacle, unpredictability.

That’s what I want to create: a reason for people to come to the theatre, to be surprised, delighted, amused, and amazed.

What was the most magical, memorable night in the theatre for you?

2 Comments

  • By Robin Byrd, November 27, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

    Great article, Kitty. I would have to say The Lion King, the costumes of the animals and their use of the entire theater for entrances and exits, the feeling of being in the midst for real and the last scene in August Wilson’s King Hedley II.

  • By Diane Grant, December 11, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    I loved this post, Kitty. One of the plays that most moved me was a production by Vox Humana of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It didn’t have spectacle but superb writing and acting and I remember sitting still at the end of it, in tears, wanting it start all over again. Magic.

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