by Hugh Gilmore
I sometimes think the best way to attend an event is alone. Company is always welcome, of course, especially while coming and going, but I really believe I get more out of things by being alone when I watch them. That’s what I was thinking when I sat alone and watched our local Stagecrafters theater’s very pleasing and stimulating production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by myself on opening night last Friday. When I’m alone, I listen more acutely. The ideas I’m hearing percolate through me with more intensity.
For the most part, my wife, Janet, and I share similar movie tastes, but some of hers are too, too much for me (e.g. anything with Judy Dench) and some of mine are too overtly slow and arty for her (e.g. “Melancholia,” “Tree of Life”). She does not particularly like opera (unless the tenor is Roberto Alagna or Jonas Kaufman, or the baritone is Teddy Tahu Rhodes – then it’s “off to the Opera!”). And as for sports: Fuhgetaboudit! I know that sports have been created in order for men to drink beer and yell when their team plays well and groan when they don’t, but, to tell you the truth, ninety percent of the time at least one of the guys is talking over the announcer. I prefer to watch alone. For one thing: if my concentration wavers, my team loses.
Well, what is it I get by watching a stage performance while alone? For one thing I concentrate more on what the playwright is saying. In a way, it has that audio-book effect on me. That is, every word seems to count.
And being a writer myself, I find myself watching – even admiring – the way the dramatist sets up his scenes by creating a problem, then stirring it, and finally resolving. I really like watching actors at work, especially when they don’t have lines. It’s a kick to observe them support the speaking actors with little things, such as how they pause while fiddling with their gloves, or adjusting their hair, to pay attention to what’s being said, waiting for their moment to react. Two actors in a scene with dialogue are as dependent on one another as two dancers in a ballet or even like flyer and catcher in a trapeze act.
I sat alone that Opening Friday night because my wife, Janet, was working backstage as a costumer for the show. I’d been asked to wish her luck during the short blackout between Acts 3 and 4. She and her crewmate were given 45 seconds to effect a quick costume change for the character of Vivie. They’d not been able to during rehearsals. Would they measure up tonight? ( Later: Yes, they did!)
Stagecrafters (in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia) shows are usually announced for 8:00 p.m. I waited in the back of the theater until 7:55 and then walked down to pick an aisle seat five rows back and hope I’d timed it right. This time I was unlucky. A couple arrived at curtain and blocked my perfect view. I moved to the rear.
Back there I feel more objective about the production, having a larger visual perspective, but also freer to let my mind drift.
Watching “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” I got a fresh feel for what an advanced thinker George Bernard Shaw was. I read this play in college, but other than enjoying his witticisms, I didn’t get much out of it. Now, I’m amazed that the play was written in 1893 (when Shaw was 37). The characters discuss such issues as worker exploitation, feminism, and the nature of the “world’s oldest profession” in a way that seems as current as any literary works being written today. Unsurprisingly, it took Shaw nine years to get this controversial play produced.
From there my mind wandered to wondering why so few people who like to read and think don’t come to these productions. I guess most people do not enjoy theater anymore in the era of movies. It would be both naive and futile to tell anyone they should “support” theater in general and our local theater in particular. People act for their own self interest and the surest way of killing any of the arts is to appeal to the public’s conscience. Your worked all day, now you “should” go here.
If I had the ability to convince someone, I’d get him or her to see that a night (or matinee) at the theater is a very good way to invigorate one’s mental and “spiritual” health. In the same way that most people are more tired before they go to the gym than they are when they leave, the theater revitalizes all the senses much more than a flat movie screen does. Good dramatists present fascinating people and good directors and good actors bring fresh perceptions to how we see those people. All of this in three visual dimensions! Live. Happening in the here and now. Certainly that kind of stimulation is more energizing to the mind and spirit than the overwhelming majority of movies we waste our time and money (and hopes) on.
“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” finished a beautiful run on February 17, 2013.
A book launch/party for Hugh Gilmore’s new novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” is planned for February 22 at 7 p.m. at Musehouse Literary Arts Center, 7924 Germantown Avenue. Hugh Gilmore will read, sell, and sign. Get there early: Gilmore’s readings last year were Standing Room Only.