In my pre-plague life, I never had a spare weekend. I [used to] see a lot of live theater. Over the past couple of decades, most other hobbies fell by the wayside as this one escalated.
A few people asked me about the origins of this love. One was Geraint Wyn Davies. He was just being polite and making small talk, but I launched into some inane monologue of sharing a birthplace with the first professional theater in Russia, the Volkov, named after its founder, Fedor Volkov. This is factually true, but really, in my day the Volkov was a disaster. It is a gorgeous classical building of pale yellow, with white columns and ornate façade, second in appearance only to the Bolshoi. Many famous theaters are so nondescript from the outside. The House that Moliere Built is simply stunning in its unimpressiveness, despite being home to the largest and deepest stage I have ever seen. But the Volkov is beautiful, and sits in a strategic location, facing the large round Volkov square containing the statue of Fedor Volkov himself (no surprise),
and one of the oldest historic monuments in town, the 17th century Banner (Znamenskaya) Tower. It is a spectacle—but a spectacle that used to be entirely external.
Oh, to be sure, it is also magnificent inside—with its marble red-carpeted stairs, frescoed walls, sculpted ceiling, velvet curtains, and a buffet serving delectable pastries. Unfortunately, what used to happen on stage in the ‘70s was either stale plays by Ostrovsky (in all fairness, I have never seen or read any of them), stock Communist plays (I have certainly never seen those either), Nutcracker (with substandard local or traveling cast), and an occasional Moliere or other permissible Western classic (performed in a standard static declamatory style). Before the Young Viewer’s Theater was built (after my time), my class would occasionally troop over to the Volkov on a field trip to see a morality play about the Young Pioneers.
The pastries were always excellent!
Right before we left the Soviet Union forever, my grandmother and I spent a few days in Moscow. The family friend with whom we stayed knew someone who worked at the Satire Theatre, and managed to get us in to see “Pippi Longstocking”. If one was to have such luck as to get into the Satire, or really any Moscow theater in those days, one would be hard pressed to find anything less exciting than “Pippi Longstocking”. Nonetheless, as proverbial beggars cannot be choosers, it was still thrilling. There were a couple of actors whom I knew from TV, and that was enough. I still recall one tune from the musical, for that is indeed what it was, and that is no small measure of an impression it made on me almost 40 years ago. I never heard this tune again except in my head. Those were the days when memories were made.
In the US, we were astonished to learn, theater tickets were distributed on a sort of first come, first served basis to those who had the means to pay, rather than on a complicated favoritism scale as a part of a behind the scenes black market economy. That was an incredible concept, although I did not know the actors and did not want to see them. Whenever my mother and I found ourselves in New York at the same time, she dragged me to Times Square to stand in line for half price tickets. The first Broadway play I saw was “Foxfire”, with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Keith Carradine. We must have already been living in the US for a bit, because I knew who Keith Carradine was. I understood almost nothing, as my English was so poor and certainly not theater-ready at the time, but I did understand that I was in the presence of greatness. I held on to the memory and still cherish. I wish I had kept the program…
We saw a few great shows over the years when I was in high school: several G&S productions https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/, and an amazing production of “As You Like It” in Jackson before Michigan Shakespeare Festival settled there. https://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/ It is still the gold standard for that play for me. Each act was done in a different setting. The city was all shades of gray and furs and muffs, the forest was all pastels, and the rest I do not remember. Nonetheless, for what was my first encounter with Shakespeare in the language I was still learning, it certainly left a lasting impression. But the real theater life started in Fort Worth.
When I was in college and my parents (I use the term loosely when it includes my late stepfather) lived in Fort Worth, they discovered a small regional theater called Stage West. https://stagewest.org/ In a tiny space of about 100 seats, they used to put on a fantastic variety of plays—and still do. My first exposure was to a dysfunctional comedy at Christmas called “Seasons Greetings”—we still laugh about “Pig number one, pig number two”, although I have never seen it performed since. From then on, every time I visited my parents, we would go to Stage West. It was always a delight, with an underlying feeling of uncomfortable incredulity about how a troop of local actors in some shed on a rough dockyard-like street would do a better artistic job than the permanent staff of the oldest professional theater in all of Russia, working in a gorgeous building with delicious pastries.
As an aside, I had the great fortune of revisiting Stage West a few years ago during a work conference in Dallas. My mother joined me, and we saw Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”. As a purportedly more sophisticated theater goer after the passage of almost three decades, I was still astonished. It was a world-class production. And one of those moments when I said to myself, I am the luckiest girl in the world. Gosh, I just live for those moments!
And then there came Stratford. https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/ This is a story that has been told often, and at almost every Stratford social event. It is just a conversation starter—how long have you been coming, what was your first experience? In my young married life, theater was not a factor, as we had neither time nor money, and never both at the same time. One fine day in 1996, my college friend suggested a girlfriends’ day to see a play. So the three of us drove three hours, arrived on a rain-soaked Saturday in August, ate some weird concoction prepared by one of us (not me!) for lunch in the car, and entered the Festival Theatre to behold the great William Hutt as King Lear. It was unquestionably one of the defining moments of my life. I wish I had kept the program…
Initially it was an annual trip. Initially it was just Shakespeare. Then we added other shows that sounded interesting, and once a season became not enough. Then some years later my friend lost interest and was replaced by my spouse. Then my kids started coming, and several other friends came along, and I even went by myself once when I could not sell anyone on “Fuenteovejuna”.
Along the way, I started to go to the theater everywhere I have traveled for work or leisure, and then planning trips with seeing plays as the goal. It became my identity— “I go to the theater”. It is what I do and who I am. For the time being, I do not and I am not. It feels like an intermission of my life. With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I no longer know who I am and what to do with my after-work life. As I see it, I have two options: (1) reinvent and find some new interests, or (2) hunker down with my memories and wait it out. Or maybe both? Stay tuned…
 I am just name dropping here. J
 Is it a coincidence that Hume Cronyn is Canadian? I think not.
 I saw Keith Carradine on a BroadwayCon panel a few years ago, and he actually mentioned “Foxfire” with fondness. What a full circle!
 Anyone who has not seen this Stratford production should be living with regrets. I am just saying.