I’m at the will call window at Penumbra Theatre, getting tickets to their production of I Wish You Love, the story of Nat King Cole’s year on television as buses, bombs and mobs in the American South made the evening news. It’s a Friday night, I’m tired, and I have an essay to write for Minnesota Playlist, which nags at me. I see theatre every week; I’m increasingly skeptical that I have anything new or interesting to say about the topic.
But I’m grateful for the realizations that popped into my head as the evening played on.
I know a lot of people who tell me they only want to be entertained by the theatre. They warn me they won’t see me in “anything sad” or a show in which I’m not funny. And while that is a completely valid reason to see theatre, I was reminded it is rarely ever enough for me. High quality amusement may be all I expect from Cirque du Soleil, but when I go to the theatre, somebody, some moment, some sound, some lighting shift, needs to make me gasp, weep or grind my teeth or I feel cheated.
I wasn’t cheated on Friday night. And when that moment happened – an awful eloquent juxtaposition of Cole singing “Let There Be Love” against news footage of black men and women being assaulted by dogs, fire hoses and fists – I was so filled with shame I could hardly breathe. That’s what I need theatre to do. Lots of people on Facebook make me laugh. I need theatre to yank me out my humdrum-ness and toss me some place I don’t necessarily want to be and then make me glad I paid for the privilege.
There is a weird communal thing that happens at live theatre that never happens to me in a cineplex or an art gallery or even a concert hall. Other patrons – complete strangers – talk to me. It might be about anything – a particular actor they admire, how much they love this play, did I read the review of this show, etc. They lean over the armrest and they talk to me.
That evening it was a man who told me how long they had been coming to Penumbra, how much the appearance of the theatre had improved, how they kept coming back because of the quality of productions – completely unsolicited. All because I happened to be the person sitting to his left. In other settings I eavesdrop on conversations and strangers eavesdrop on me – but nobody ever steps over and asks me why I’m a Vin Diesel fan or if I understand baroque music or why do I think El Greco is so great. At the theatre, that happens. I don’t have the foggiest idea why. But I like it a lot. It’s like getting the best free appetizer in the world before dinner.
Stories are better when I hear them with other people. Even the people who got continually shushed the other night – yes, even those annoying people. The story being told up on that stage was the catalyst for a memory that just had to be whispered right then or an epiphany for the man over there in the front row who removed his glasses and wiped his eyes or that perfect surprise moment when everyone burst into laughter and rocked back and forth a little in their seats.
That night – when any one of us might have been watching television at home, or taking a walk or falling into bed early – we were instead sitting elbow to elbow with a bunch of people we didn’t know, waiting in the dark, listening to a story. And I think that is a need we have that is deeply imbedded in our brains – after we get our oxygen, water, food, sex and safety all straightened out, we have to have more. Sometimes we sit around a fire pit in a backyard with a beer and talk about our jobs or our silly dog, and sometimes we sit in fancier seats and have other people tell us stories about a ghostly father or a drug addicted mother or an invisible rabbit – all ways to dress up our desires, hopes and fears.
Telling and hearing stories is what keeps us fully human and open to the world. And live theatre is filled with uncertainties, successes, disasters and a million different resolutions – some we like, some we hate. Just like life – except with 15-minute intermissions during which someone hopefully will sell us some chocolate.
As we walked to the car, listening to all the snippets of conversation around us, my husband said to me, “So, what did you think of the show?”
In the song “I Wish You Love,” Cole sang the line “…let our hearts call it a day…” And so we did, with jazz playing on the radio and us reviewing all the things conjured up by watching the story of a musician who we never met but now knew a little better. It was a good night.