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Posts Tagged ‘plays’

It’s becoming my pre-theatre tradition: a train ride from Eastie to the Back Bay neighborhood, a BLT and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips, a cookie or brownie, and half an hour with a book. I take this pause between the workday and the show, immersing myself in one fictional world before diving into another. And then I gather my purse and head across the street, ready to begin my ushering gig at Lyric Stage Boston.

I started ushering back in the winter, first for The Book of Will (above) and subsequently for several other shows at Lyric Stage and elsewhere. I’ve loved my gigs at the Huntington and the ART, but I’ve returned, over and over, to this small black-box theatre in the heart of Back Bay, which puts on dazzling productions – funny, clever, moving – in a small space.

my fair lady set

I’ve loved live theatre since I was a child, since my parents would take us to musicals and the annual production of A Christmas Carol at our local community theatre. I was too shy to participate, beyond the Easter pageants at church, but I’ve always loved settling into my seat and watching a story – new or familiar – come to life. I especially adore getting a glimpse into the magic behind the scenes, whether it’s actors warming up or sets being moved into place or simply stacking programs in preparation for the audience to arrive.

There’s no physical curtain at Lyric Stage, but I often think of Betsy Ray’s poem from Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown while I’m handing out programs or waiting, along with the rest of the audience, for the show to start:

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

Betsy captures the anticipation – be it quiet or electric – of those moments in the pre-show dark, when we are waiting to be entertained or moved or challenged, when the actors are standing backstage, their lines on their lips. I love watching the pieces move together, the story envelop us all, the lines and scenes and musical numbers come together to immerse us in a completely different world for a while. Theatre as an art form has endured for thousands of years, but each performance is singular, ephemeral, time-limited: it hangs in the air for a couple of hours, then disappears as we emerge, blinking, back into our lives.

I’m looking forward, always, to the next time I get to see a show – whether as an usher, an audience member, or both. I love being a tiny but integral part of the process: answering questions, handing out programs and showing people to their seats. And I especially love that collective deep breath before Act I, Scene I – that moment, alive with anticipation, before the (real or metaphorical) curtain goes up.

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Back in the winter, Lyric Stage (my favorite local theater company) tweeted about needing volunteer ushers for their early spring production, The Book of Will. I’d never even thought about ushering before that, but I signed up and happily showed up early to hand out programs, direct patrons to their seats, and see the show for free. One of my fellow ushers said she’d been doing this for years: “It’s a whole scene!” she told me. I resolved to look into it.

Since then, I’ve ushered at two more Lyric Stage productions, and last month, I expanded my efforts to other theaters: the Huntington, which was showing the brand-new production Common Ground Revisited, and the ART in Cambridge, which just finished its run of the fantastic revival of 1776. I spent three out of four Friday nights in June ushering at local shows, and I have to say, it’s the best volunteer gig in town.

I love live theater, and I missed it sorely during the worst of the pandemic: streaming a play or two online, as I did, just isn’t the same thing. There’s something visceral and immediate – and so much fun – about being in a space with live actors, watching them tell stories in real time.

Volunteering has allowed me a glimpse behind the scenes, too: I’ve met a few staff members as well as fellow volunteers, and watched the audience stream in, excited or indifferent or anxious to find their seats, and settle in for an evening (or an afternoon) of storytelling. It’s a delight to be a small part of making the show happen, and (of course) the reward is wonderful: getting to see the show for free in exchange for a bit of time.

Several of Boston’s theaters are dark for the summer right now, but you can bet I’ll be ushering again this fall. I’m so thrilled to have discovered this new-to-me slice of the city I live in and love.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Last week, my book club met to discuss The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown’s lovely debut novel about three adult sisters who return to the small Ohio college town where they grew up. Their father is a Shakespeare professor, singularly focused on his topic, and as a result the entire family (and the book) are steeped in the Bard.

Eleanor generously offered to join us via Skype (though she was traveling and also fighting a cold – what a trooper!). We talked about siblings, birth order, family dynamics and writing in first-person-plural voice. She confessed that while she did a ton of research for the book, she’s not a Shakespeare buff – in fact, she didn’t “get” him until seeing several of his plays in England while she was in graduate school.

“When I taught English, I refused to teach Shakespeare,” Eleanor added, “because I didn’t want to be the one who ruined Shakespeare for these kids.” That remark prompted a slew of reminiscences (and eye-rolling) from all of us about being forced to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth or tenth grade. (My college Shakespeare professor, on the first day of class, proclaimed, “We are not reading Romeo and Juliet. I hate it, and besides all of you have read it already!”)

We also talked about odd Shakespeare productions, referencing a very funny scene in The Weird Sisters in which the family discusses crazy productions they’ve seen, including an all-nude version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, fortunately, Eleanor said she made up). Abi recalled seeing a 1970s-themed production of Midsummer as a high school student (which, given the content of the play, actually worked). I remembered a decidedly strange production of Macbeth, set in what I think was 1950s Deep South America, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Shotguns, suits and rotary phones. It was bizarre.)

But my first encounter with Shakespeare came long before I ever saw him on stage – before I had any idea how famous he was, before I even knew his plays were set in verse. I discovered Shakespeare during long Ohio summers, sprawled across one of two beds in the upstairs room that was once my mother’s, languid summer breezes stirring the thick, humid air outside, box fans whirring in the windows. I discovered him through pen-and-ink illustrations, tinted with orange and jade green, through mischievous fairies and rollicking amateur actors and a sprite who had more energy than sense.

midsummer night's dream fairies titania my book house

Titania sleeps in a flower bed

midsummer night's dream bottom donkey fairies my book house

Bottom and the fairies

I’ve written before about the My Book House series – a treasure trove of folktales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and adaptations of classic stories from around the world. I especially loved the middle books in the series, stuffed full of fairy tales, and I came back to this simple prose version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. (And then – a wonderful bonus – turned the page to read about Felix Mendelssohn and how he composed the musical score after reading the play as a teenager.)

felix mendelssohn music midsummer night's dream my book house

Felix and his sister Fanny

I came back to Shakespeare years later, in school, reading Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth and some sonnets. I acted in a production of The Rude Mechanicals (a crude adaptation of Midsummer) in ninth grade; the acting was pretty terrible, I admit, but we had fun. I took the aforementioned Shakespeare course in college, and saw a half-dozen summer Shakespeare productions put on by my college’s fabulous theatre department.

I don’t consider myself a Shakespeare buff – the Bard’s plots are often confusing, his language ornate and sometimes outdated to my ears. But I admire him deeply, the beauty and power of his words and the way his work has endured over centuries. And I’ve had a soft spot for this particular story ever since I was that little girl reading about Titania and the fairies on those long-ago summer days.

fairies midsummer night's dream my book house

When and where did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what’s the weirdest Shakespeare production you’ve ever seen?

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