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ART TIMES Apr, 2004

Quite a few years ago, I was involved with a production of Man of La Mancha. That’s a show that is wonderful to be in; the story and the emotion and the music can literally sweep you away into a different world. That production was also special because of the people involved; sometimes a cast will coalesce into something very much like a family. The family may be a good one or a bad one, but it’s still a family, and this family was absolutely the best ever.

My day job was in the same building as the theater, and I routinely walked across the stage to get from the front of the building to my office. And thereby hangs the tale.

The day after the show closed, I walked onto the stage and suddenly, with a great sense of shock, I saw that of course, the set was gone, as were all other elements of the production. The strike crew had done their job with that organization’s usual efficiency. Yes — every trace of the show was gone. The music, the family, the emotion, the story, the audience — all gone. Vanished like a puff of smoke. The sudden shock — I just hadn’t thought about the fact that the show would be gone when I walked in that morning — was horrific. I suddenly really knew that I would not sing those songs and speak those words again with those people in that place. It did break my heart; it nearly put me on my knees, and it very nearly made me decide never ever to go anywhere near a theater again.

It’s the evanescence of the stage. What we do is like a soap bubble. If it lasts long enough to blow away, we’re lucky; usually it goes pop! right before our eyes. Painters make a painting, sculptors make a statue, even musicians can make a recording, and with modern technology it can be very hard to tell the difference between a recording and a live performance. But actors and dancers will never have a medium that can truly capture what they do until some form of high-resolution three-dimensional moving holography comes into existence — and probably not even then. Actors and dancers do in the moment, the constantly passing, uncapturable moment, and must always move on to the next moment. Broadway dancers are called gypsies because they’re constantly moving on from show to show, but actors and dancers are also gypsies in time, moving from moment to moment and performance to performance, like ocean creatures who must move always or they will sink to the bottom of the sea.

This can be a terrible thing. To put so much into something that lasts for so short a time is costly. The energy it takes is not easily found. How do you load the soul with the carbohydrates it needs for such marathons? It’s like taking one’s life savings and betting it all on one throw of the dice — and win or lose, that throw is over in a heartbeat. A. E. Houseman wrote a poem about men who die young — something he definitely didn’t do himself — in which he saw the beauty of something that does not last, of something that does not grow old. The life of even a young man is long compared to the life of a theatrical performance, or even a theatrical production.

But that is the beauty we live with. It’s the nature of the experience we commit ourselves to perform. It’s a painful beauty, but it is there, and it can make itself more intense exactly because it does not last. When you can’t see the work tomorrow, perhaps you will make a greater effort to more fully experience it today. Perhaps that is why we put such value on being fully authentic in the moment, and why our audiences respond so powerfully when we succeed — because that moment is all we have, and all we have to give them, and all there is for them to take.

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