Back in January I had the opportunity to take my family to see one of my favourite plays on Broadway - Waiting for Godot, at The Cort Theater. We bought our tickets in late November, so I had over a month to bubble up with excitement about our forthcoming trip.
And, being unable to contain myself, I told a LOT of people we were going, with all the grinning and jazz hands necessary to convey my delight. I was surprised and saddened that not everyone shared my joy. To one of my friends, who couldn't believe I was taking my son, I didn't know what to say. She asked me to explain again what the play was about, and then said 'He'll hate it!' Obviously, I had described it incompletely, so I tried again to explain about the bums, the waiting, the unfortunate servant of the brash traveler, the friendship built on mutual need, the ties built of convenience and habit, but she remained unconvinced. Her primary argument seemed to be that my son couldn't like it or look forward to it because he didn't already know the characters.
I realized that if I told her I was taking him a few blocks away to see whatever musical extravaganza Disney had on at their theater, her eyes would have lit up and she would have shared my delight and congratulated me on giving him the chance for such memories.
What the hell?
Art imitates life, then life imitates art, then art imitates life - it's a perfect cycle of cultural development - and it exists more powerfully in the theater before you find it in books or film. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? Theater is no less vital to a community now than it was in ancient Rome.
Theater is where we go to hear new stories, stories from our life or others; from our people's history or from a world far away.
Theater is where we learn to laugh, to cry, to comfort shed tears, to cheer another's successes.
The theater is where we go to learn how to be.
In the audience we learn, by seeing and hearing, how to express ourselves: what are our cultural standard displays of fear, anger, joy, frustration, anguish, jealousy, rage. More importantly we learn how to react - we feel reactions in ourselves, see them on the stage, and (as the story unfolds) what are acceptable reactions and what are not.
Theater is a place to expand our life's experiences - we don't have to suffer divorce or loss of a parent ourselves to learn how to behave in the face of loss, we can share the happiness and laughter of others in their delight, even if our circle of friends or family don't give us the chance in our daily lives.
We can watch a film, and see tears or hear laughter, but in movies we are separated by time, space, and a director. In a theater, we share the space and are of the same time as the players. Our hearts ache with their tears and our cheeks ache with their laughter. We can feel the anguish in their cries and the buoyancy in their guffaws. It maybe stating the obvious, but I feel it needs to be said, that theater is simply more real.
And theater is safe. The players may strike out at each other, may bring reactions of fear or express sorrow, but we know (even as we suffer with them) that they are going to be all right. We know the wounds are temporary, ephemeral, but feel the emotions as real.
You don't have to hop a train or a plane to see fine theater - it exists well beyond The Great White Way. Unless you live in the remotest homestead or the tiniest of small towns, you have access to theater. Middle School and High School Drama Clubs put on productions every fall and spring; Community Center amateur clubs support annual events and dinner theater is alive and well far beyond the communities of Palm Springs. Even if it's a story you know - Annie, The Glass Menagerie, or any of the classics of American theater, even if it's put on by squeaky-voiced teenagers - go anyway.
Especially if it's a story you know, go. Especially if it stars younger people, go. Being part of another generation's interpretation of a classic story you might just learn something about that generation gap I keep hearing about.
In Waiting for Godot, this production has lived up to all I hope for from live theater - the range of emotions, the depth of the characters, and the memories of events I could never have know otherwise. I have given my son a chance to feel the anguish of doubt, and know that in the midst of the most crushing uncertainty one goes on, and that's a knowledge I couldn't imagine withholding from him.
There's still a few weeks to go in the show's second extension, and we are going back before the run ends, to see them all over again. If you have a chance, and will be in New York before March 30, I highly recommend you try to go - The Cort is one of those classic theaters that even keeps a handful of seats open on the day of for last minute purchase at the box office.