Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A something in a summer's day

I used to be a person who would not go willingly to amateur theater performances.  Yes, I'm the parent in the audience who's sitting there thinking very much along the lines of Thaddeus Bristol (a character in David Sedaris' story about an elementary school Christmas pageant, "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol").

Perhaps this is due to the trauma induced by a field trip I once took, during which I was forced to sit through four stunningly awful hours of an attempt at performing Annie Get Your Gun.  When we left, they still hadn't gotten through the whole show. I've never seen the end...and never wanted to.

Throughout my childhood, I went to at least four performances a year at the university theater where my father directed plays, and on vacations we saw plays and musicals in New York, London, and Chicago.  It takes more than a desire to see a friend or kid on stage to get me into a theater.  If I'm going to spend the time and money, I want to see something well written and directed.

So it should amaze you to hear that on Sunday, Eleanor and Walker and I drove to Johnstown, Ohio to see their high school students perform Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.  We don't even know anybody in Johnstown; we were just impressed with their audacity and figured it would either have good moments or it would be fun to laugh at. What amazed us is that the entire show was fun to watch.  The main problem with a high school show is usually the time it takes for everyone to move the scenery, but the Johnstown students had it down to a science, and all their parents and friends were back there helping crank the chandelier up and down, and turn the boat and the life-size elephant around.  The sopranos were up to the job, and the big Masquerade number was a joy, with stilt-walkers and singers surrounding the audience. It turned out to be worth going out in the cold.

There's a line in one of the romantic duets--"turn my head with talk of summertime"--that's been running through my head almost continuously since I heard it on Sunday night.  People who don't mind the cold, who say "you can always put on a sweater," don't get how winter, for people like me, is a season of being always clenched, always having your shoulders hunched up against the cold.  Spring is a kind of gradual unknotting for my shoulder muscles, with summer the culmination.

Summer is a culmination of wonder in this poem by Emily Dickinson:

A something in a summer's day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon--
A depth--an azure--a perfume--
Transcending ecstasy

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see--

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me--

The wizard fingers never rest--
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed--

Still rears the east her amber flag--
Guides still the sun along the crag
His caravan of red--

So looking on--the night--the morn--
Conclude the wonder gay--
And I meet, coming through the dews
Another summer's day!

I have had my head turned, both by thoughts of summertime, and by the magic of theater done well, in the most unlikely of places.

When's the last time you experienced something so full of wonder that you would "clap [your] hands to see"?


PAJ said...

I dread student productions and usually try to avoid them if possible. But I've seen a few these last years (it goes with being the parent of a teen) and have found that usually I'm truly entertained by at least one of the performers. These are the actors who obviously are "born for the stage," whether or not they ever pursue a theatrical career (perhaps many of them are future teachers). They understand the reciprocal nature of a live performance. As my diva sister would say, they "bring it."
(And it's always wonderful to watch them bask in their moment of glory after the performance.)

Avid Reader said...

I've been reviewing theatre for 5 years now and I've seen some awful shows! There have obviously been some amazing ones as well, but it's hard to sit through some amateur 10-year-old's horrific portrayal of little orphan Annie.

FreshHell said...

I experience that sense of wonder a lot with my kids. Small moments that are like flashes of light and happiness. It doesn't take much: hearing them laugh at something funny in a book I'm reading to them, a new discovery as the cogs in their brain click together in a different way, or just sitting in my garden in mid-summer and watching the bees fly from sunflower to sunflower gathering pollen.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

There are many that are dreadful, but sometimes the energy and the drive to do well make them better than more polished, professional and jaded productions. I agree with you that it's the interstitial stuff like scene changes that make student productions deadly. I remember a professional production of Un ballo in maschera at Lyric Opera a number of years ago. The singing was lovely, but for some reason, they stopped for long breaks between scenes and long bows after every single aria (an old bel canto tradition that you don't see so much any more) and it was absolutely excruciating. Even when a performance is otherwise great, it can ruin things to stop constantly.

Trapunto said...

Der Mann and I were just discussing/worrying over the fact that our tolerance for theater has plummeted with age. A few weeks ago we traveled to see a production my mom, who teaches theater for a homeschool co-op, wrote and directed for her high-school aged class. Oh, the agony of keeping up a stream of nice, true comments about a production to someone in a state of post-perfomance euphoria who wants to know "Well, what did you think?!" while you are still in a state of post-performance wanting to stab-your-eyes-and-ears-out!

They had exactly that problem with the scene changes, too. I didn't know it was common.

I'm glad you saw such good one show! Was it a big high school? I don't *really* believe kid/amateur actors are just getting stupider, less able to comprehend direction, more mush-mouthed, less committed, and generally less competent over time, even though it feels that way; you've encouraged me. I so agree with what PAJ says about the ones who "bring it." That's what used to make me more tolerant. I know they are still out there (the lead in my mom's play was really sweet, a natural, and there were a few other glints), it's just hard to pick them out and enjoy them apart from the ensemble.

But to answer your question. A couple of days ago I clapped my hands in wonder (figuratively; I was driving) to see the yellow plastic chair a homeowner had kindly put out by a bus stop near their house, the way sat among the daffodils they had planted between their sidewalk and an old, mossy fence.

Jenners said...

As soon as you mentioned that lyric it started going through my head too. glad to hear they pulled it off! That is ambitious for any theater group.

Jenny said...

Oh Sylvia Plath has a poem about this, summertime and clapping your hands to see, although of course her take on it is slightly bleaker. The bit I like best is:

At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality.

"Whatever angel may choose to flare / Suddenly at my elbow" is such a good description of those moments of wonder.

Jeanne said...

PAJ, there was one like that in this Phantom, playing the part of Carlotta, naturally--the diva!
I've never enjoyed watching them bask in the moment of glory afterwards. If I could, I'd leave directly after the performance, to preserve the illusion. In fact, that's what we did at Johnstown.

Avid Reader, the community theater here did Annie last summer, but it wasn't awful. Sometimes there's a kind of joy in seeing something really awful, but you have to have someone to laugh with!

FreshHell, the cogs in their brain clicking together in a different way--that's the kind of thing I was thinking about, when your view of the world enlarges. My previous view of the world didn't include a high school that could successfully perform Phantom.

Harriet, I saw Phantom at the Kennedy Center in the 80s, in London in the 90s, and last winter in New York, and this high school performance did make it fresh again; it helped that the guy who played the Phantom was big and had a big voice.

Trapunto, my tolerance for bad theater has definitely plummeted with age, which is why I was so delighted that I could still be surprised by good high school theater!

It was not a big high school. I think they literally had half the town in the audience and the other half on and backstage. The town had 3,440 people at last count.

So the color of the chair with the yellow flowers, and the kindness of putting it out?

Jenners, lucky it's a lovely song, isn't it?

Jenny, I've always read Plath's "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" a bit differently. To me, it's that moment when you've been sunk in depression and all of the sudden you see something--really see it, even though it's black against the gray. That moment of seeing pulls you out of yourself, and then you're part of the world again. It's a "brief respite from total neutrality," rather than the unalloyed joy of summer.

I'm not disagreeing with how you read the poem; just saying that the surprise of the show being good and the delight of summer are stronger feelings for me. The rook is like a crocus--it made my eyes brighten when I saw the first one this week, but it's not a cause for joy, only hope.

Trapunto said...

Yes, and what made it even better was that it was the first mass planting of blooming daffodils I'd seen this year. We live in a microclimate where things come on a bit later than the one I was driving in, more at crocus stage.

I'm moved by the kindness of faded yellow plastic chairs, but when I think about it I suppose planting flowers in verges is even kinder; it goes together.

Wow to such a small town putting that on. They must have a very inspiring drama teacher--the school district would have had to shell out quite a bit for the rights to such a high-profile musical, I suppose.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I love to drive south in the spring and see things blooming before they bloom where I live. I have the idea that you live somewhere in Europe, but a microclimate? Curiouser and curiouser.

And yes, when I moved to Ohio I thought it was an act of both bravery and kindness to plant so many annuals in verges. It's almost like defiance--we know these flowers will bloom only from May until September, but we're planting them anyway.

The force behind the performance was the vocal music teacher, and the newspaper story that made me go see the show talked about how it's one of the first high schools to buy the rights. I guess I should have added that if anyone in town wasn't in the audience, onstage, or backstage, they'd bought an ad for the program!

Nancy said...

Oh, Jeanne, I totally get the winter hunching. When I lived up North, much as I loved the natural beauty of winter, I used to think I was simply wasting half my life, killing time until the spring came. My birthday is in late March, and I used to feel fiercely resentful of March's cold and snow. I was strongly of the opinion that having your birthday after March 21 meant IT SHOULD BE SPRING!

Next St. Pat's Day, you should come down to Louisiana and we'll go to the parade and catch throws and dance and yell "Throw me something, mister!" and there will be fountains of azaleas and wisteria and jessamine everywhere.

Jeanne said...

Nancy, that sounds quite lovely. Since my son was born on your birthday, I've noticed that on two out of the last fourteen birthdays it has snowed and been cold on that day up here.