Our preferences in theater reveal at least as much about ourselves as they do about the theatrical work itself. What constitutes the “best” of any given theater season often has more to do with an individual viewer’s state of mind during that season than anything else, and as I’ve elaborated in this forum before, those aesthetic judgments place each of us in an inter-subjective community of fellow enthusiasts that helps to define who we are, since our tastes make up an important part of our identity. I’ll leave it to you to discern what my state of mind may have been last year at this time when I proclaimed the Jungle Theater’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the best of 2009–2010.
Whatever last year’s selection represents, 2010–2011 was a different kind of season for me – one that portended some big changes in the direction my life is taking and a strong desire to explore the possibilities of novelty, the challenges of developing myself, and of developing my art. So when I was asked about contributing to this “Best of” series, I didn’t have to think twice about what made this season great for me: 2010–2011 was My Season of Readings.
The majority of the performances that stuck with me were from those wonderful times and spaces where theater artists gather and, when it goes really well, can palpably measure and feel a play’s growth and maturation. When a play is literally growing before your eyes, it’s impossible as an audience member not to share in the excitement, and also you feel a sense of pride, since the audience, after all, plays a crucial role in developing any new work. This sense of excitement and pride kept me coming back to readings and workshops all season long. Despite the potential to despair a sometime endless cycle of workshops and developmental readings, this last season was nothing like developmental hell. Rather, it was more like developmental heaven.
Of course, there were many commendable performances from fully mounted shows over the last year, many of which enriched my theatrical life. Like most of us in the Twin Cities theater community I saw lots of shows, and since I can, I want to give fully-mounted-credit where credit is due. We shouldn't soon forget the desperate, lonely, absolutely stunning performance by Linda Kelsey as Ella in Aditi Kapil’s Agnes Under the Big Top at Mixed Blood. Or the haunting, dignified Number One, brought to life by the tremendous Shá Cage in Frank Theatre’s production of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. Didn’t you fall in love, as I did, with Tracey Maloney’s Theresa in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at the Guthrie? I am reminded when I think of those performances that our community is vibrant, exciting, and alive; each of them left me feeling theatrically invigorated and entertained.
What makes something the best, however, is that it sticks with you – you keep living with it, delving into it, making it a part of you. And what stuck with me most were the moments of excitement, development, and sometimes brilliance, in the many readings and workshops I attended across the Twin Cities. More than any full production I saw, these readings exposed the essence of theater: the quest for growth, for emotional connection with the script, with each other, with the raw power of language. Readings include the audience in their quest for novelty, making us all fellows in this community of the theatrical new.
Looking back, I understand why I spent most of my time in the audience at readings. I was engaged myself in searching for the essence of something, and thus wanted to participate in a wider community of similar searchers. At the time, however, I was under the sway of my unconscious mind, struggling with my own issues of development and direction; some of these scenes now seem pregnant with personal symbolism.
Take, for example, the reading of Leigh Fondakowski’s new play, Casa Cushman on a cold night in December at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, just before the Cities were covered in three feet of snow and shortly before I made the decision to leave my graduate program in history to pursue my life in theater. I can remember in vivid detail the stark contrast between the warmly-lit stage on which we all sat, surrounded by large mirrors, chests, and other props that evoked the grand world of the expatriate actress, absorbed in Leigh’s fascinating work (so adeptly brought to life by Charity Jones, among others) with the vast, dark emptiness of Northrop Auditorium behind us. On one hand, the electric, colorful world I was about to enter, on the other, the vast, familiar world of academe I was preparing to leave.
Or take the brilliance of Carson Kreitzer’s Behind the Eye at The Playwrights’ Center in February. In a reading, you encounter the inherent theatricality of what we do. With no real lights, sound, sets, or props (save the versatile music stand), there is no choice but to let your imagination wash over what a scene will look like, tuning closer into the rhythm of the words and the emotional connection between the actors. And what rhythm! Kreitzer’s exploration of the life of oft-forgotten photographer, feminist, and socialite Lee Miller washed over me at times as if it were poetry. We were transported back to 1920s Paris, entranced by Annie Enneking’s Lee and amused by Patrick Bailey’s Man Ray; we shuddered at the horrors of the Second World War, were amazed at Miller’s chutzpah being photographed in the Führer’s bathroom; we were party to her alcoholism and desperation from her docile, domestic life with the artist Roland Penrose in the English countryside. With nothing more than the script and the music stands between them, the actors’ raw energy and connection to each other infected the audience. This complex play, presented so simply at a reading in February, has held sway over me for eight months now, and I often marvel at how vividly the world of the play lives in my memory with little more than the voices of talented actors, the poetry of the playwright’s words, and my own imagination.
There are others about which I could go on (I learned more about acting from watching Sally Wingert perform in Ain Gordon’s reading of Not What Happened than I have from anything else) but I think the point is this: When you need to feel complicit in something, like you belong to a community, go see a reading. By partaking in something so bare, so essential, you will have an opportunity to experience the best of what we do: connecting to ourselves and to each other.