Live Theatre and Transience

I am a theatre person.

This can mean many things of course, but for me, it is a summation. I am a Master Electrician/Lighting Designer for live theater by trade. I have acted in the past, and still use the skills that I developed in my everyday life. I like to talk and write about theater. A review/discussion of theatre that I wrote was featured in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “On the Bricks” e-newsletter (The essay can be found here, on my mom’s blog. Wait, did I just cheat myself out of an easy update? Dang).

I enjoy attending live theatre.

Live theatre is something that doesn’t easily let go once it gets its hooks in you. It is something that is not easily defined or explained, because so much of what one takes from it is defined by the viewer’s own experiences. It is a reflective medium, where two people can draw completely different themes from a show depending on what they see of their own lives in the production, and the culture the play is being produced in. At the same time, it is a show, where a plot is laid out with all possible theatricality for the pleasure of the audience. In some cases, it is a medium of dissidence, of questioning authority. It can be aggressive, pushing the boundaries of what some consider acceptable in their entertainment, forcing the audience to feel, as I like to call it, “artistically uncomfortable.” Theatre’s faces are as many and varied as the faces of humanity.

All of these things can be accomplished in other mediums, to be sure, but to my mind, seeing something live is like falling into a different reality (Which is not to say that you can’t do so with other mediums. I am a voracious reader. I love cinema. I am writing about theatre. Let me be flowery, dangit!). It is a shared reality, in which you are intimately connected with the other members of the audience as well as with the performers.

It is something you will never quite capture again.

That transience, the fact that the moment a performance closes, no other performance will be exactly like it, is what so many people like about live events, theater especially. Hoo boy, do I feel it too. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most frustrating things about it.

Example: I have had Willkommen, the opening number from Cabaret, stuck in my head all day. I missed the memo on seeing a lot of classic plays or their cinema counterparts, and Cabaret was no different. When I think Cabaret, I am transported to the tiny Oregon Cabaret Theater, an intimate dinner theatre sort of venue, where I was first exposed to the production (One thing you quickly learn in college: Never turn down a free meal or a free show.).

Cabaret 2015 – Sierra Wells, Layli Kayhani, Galloway Stevens, Leah Kolb, Kerry Lambert (photo: Tom Lavine)

Galloway Stevens’ rendition of the song twisted its way into my mind the first night I saw it, and has taken up residence. I think Cabaret, I think this production. Some days, when I have such a piece stuck in my head, I will jump on the internet and look for videos of the play in question, trying to recapture the magic.

It never works.

Cabaret is a show with history. It is a show designed to make the audience “artistically uncomfortable,” and succeeds in doing so quite handily. It has been on Broadway twice, as well as having a movie, all of which are quite popular. In a talk-back my senior class had with many of the cast of this show, Galloway mentioned how the character of the MC had too much history for his rendition to be entirely his own.

When I look back at recordings of the other productions, I see influences, sure. But I only saw one production live. I watch these famous, critically acclaimed productions, and from the first verses of the opening number my brain is screaming that it’s wrong, it’s ever so slightly off.

There is nothing wrong with these famous productions. The actors are quite skilled, and their interpretation of the character is as valid as any other. That being said, the only version I have seen live has established itself as THE interpretation, and my higher brain functions are overruled if I try to think about comparing the performances critically.

It is an involuntary response created by the connection I felt to the live performance, one that is simultaneously magical and infuriating. I can’t recapture the magic of the moment no matter how I try, but the moment is still with me. I love the fact that I was there to experience it, and can distinctly recall everything I loved about the production.

At the end of the day, there will never be another production quite like it. Better, worse, but never the same.

Transience is the word that most use to describe it. Something is beautiful because it is fleeting. Personally, I do not accept that particular thought. To be certain, the experience I had was both beautiful and fleeting, but I reject a causation between the two.

There will never be a performance exactly like the one I saw. I treasure the memory I have of it, and in keeping the memory, I give that performance eternal life. I can’t recapture the magic of seeing it live, as much as I try, but the echoes of that feeling carry on.

My mind is full of these experiences that I refuse to let fade. A hall of glory, part museum, part mausoleum, and constantly in search of new additions to the collection.

As I think about it, at least some of the experience draws from the fact that no art exists in a vacuum. Just as Galloway could not help but judge his performance against the MC’s that came before, I could not help but judge them against the MC I saw first.

<tangent> There is a peculiar trend among theatre-goers that I have talked to in which they recommend looking up a show before seeing it. That way, if one sees a show they do not like, they have no one but themselves to blame. I, on the other hand, quite enjoy seeing theatre with no preconceived notions. There is something about the unprotected experience that draws me in like a moth to the flame. Sure, it’s an easy way to get burned, but one has to accept some risk to get the raw, unadulterated emotion that I love so much. Heck, half of this post has been about seeing Cabaret with no prior knowledge of it. It was seriously one of the most enrapturing theatre experiences of my life thus far.</tangent>

I will now gush.

The Oregon Cabaret Theater is a minuscule space, made even more so by the fact that it is in Ashland and as such is being compared against the OSF. For the purposes of Cabaret, the size is a strength rather than a weakness. The performers wove in and out of the audience in the pre-show, and rather than it being a disruption of the audience-stage barrier, the barrier never existed in the first place. The space is designed for dinner theater, and as such the tables and seating had been modified to seem an extension of the set, complete with phones which the performers could use to call and talk to the patrons. From the moment you walked in, you were in the world of the play, the velvet-and-sequins nightlife world of the Berlin That Was.

The lack of barrier meant that the hardest hitting moments of the performance were never more than a few feet from you at most, the joy, desperation, and fear of the characters was in your face. You could not turn away, and your only recourse should you be overcome was to do as the play’s lines suggested and walk out. No one did, of course. The show deliberately invoked the train wreck effect, masterfully crafting an unsettling scene that the audience could not look away from. Nor did anyone want to.

One of the most fabulous things about the show was revealed in the talk-back, in which the cast discussed the fact that the Cabaret Theater normally did light, fun shows, the sort of thing people expect in their dinner theater spaces. The fact that Cabaret was so subversive in its very production only made it all the more wonderful. For a lot of people I talked to afterwards, the surprising and powerful show really put the Cabaret Theater on the map for Ashland tourists. Their serious show had the effect of making people take them seriously. I love it.

Ok, enough gushing now. I have ranted long and hard about this, as I tend to do with my passions. Time to release it into the wilds.


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