Theater is an antidote to many things News, Sports, Jobs

In a Saturday Night Live skit titled Cast List, Will Ferrell plays a theatrical, capricious, and inappropriate acting teacher.

“I just wanted to let you all know that we’re going to be using the ‘Hamilton’ casting rules for this show,” he tells his students. “Well, every race for every part, unless of course it strikes me as weird.”

He goes and closes a door adorned with the masks of comedy and tragedy. As his students, waiting for him to hang up a cast list, begin to spin, he presses his middle-aged eyes to holes drilled in the door and watches. Eventually, he shows up to put her out of her misery or to strengthen her in it.

This is of course an exaggeration. Saturday Night Live is a comedy, not a documentary. But there is a grain of truth in the sketch.

If Alpena High School was the stage for any cast-list breakdowns, it wasn’t in my day.

But I seem to recall that during Mousetrap rehearsals, a cast member wrote down director Pat Jacques’ more flowery encouragements, including one that referred to the goiter sticking out of a fictional aunt’s rear end.

I was never a theater kid. I stumbled in looking for something to do. In Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, I played Ambrose Kemper, an artist described as young, energetic, awkward, and passionate. I had “young” and “awkward” under control. Halfway!

Next came The Mousetrap, in which I awkwardly walked onto the stage through a window, and then…nothing really.

I liked theater quite well, but I liked to retreat to the audience. I saw several performances of “Guys and Dolls” and loved the music and the humor. I had a crush on the woman who played the idealistic Sarah Brown until she used her real voice during a Q-and-A session and fatally removed her wig.

I still watched shows, occasionally, mostly when friends were around. I saw The Pirates of Penzance at the invitation of my friend Esther. On stage she was both herself and not, both the effortlessly cool girl I knew (clove cigarettes, silver jewelry) and a serious singer and performer.

Then I didn’t see anything for a long time. Instead, I spent my evenings in bars. It was fun and kind of crazy for a while – twice I was asked outside to fight by strangers, only one of whom had any real authority. A couple once tried to lure me and my girlfriend Jessica to their hotel with promises of Red Bull and vodka, which the bar had in full. I occasionally risked karaoke whether I had the mic or not.

But that’s getting old.

I began writing about art, music, and theater for Grand Rapids publications and discovered something I had previously overlooked: the city had a robust and notable theater scene.

I’ve sat in small theaters watching minimal productions by Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Co., in slightly larger theaters I’ve seen powerful productions by Jewish Theater Grand Rapids or Actors’ Theater, and in larger theaters I’ve seen wide, bright shows by Circle and Civic. I had no idea.

Films that took us into other worlds more and more skilfully meanwhile mostly no longer took us into interesting worlds. I decided to let other people keep up with Marvel instead of spending my free evenings watching non-CGI real people pour their hearts out.

It was impressive to know the work that must have gone into these productions – the energy, time and talent wasted by people I might have met in the grocery store. I realized I wanted to be there.

I wrote a short play called Alcina and the Wannabe Guest and submitted it to a local theater competition. Curiously, it made it to the semifinals and was publicly read out by professional actors as if being there was good enough. It could have been even stranger.

This month I started rehearsals for Turandot, which is being performed by Opera Grand Rapids. I don’t sing – God forbid. Instead, I play a guardian. It’s a small, silent part in a big, gloriously loud production, produced by rigorous professionals and featuring some of the most beautiful music ever written. It’s enough to make you cringe with gratitude.

COVID-19 has reinforced an already dominant trend: retreat from each other and into our phones.

It’s wrong and we know it.

Theater in all its myriad forms is an antidote.

drink a lot

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