For twenty-five years, I was wed to theatre.
In second grade I saw Godspell in the high school auditorium attached to my grade school. My sister’s friends were in it, and I have a – probably incorrect – memory that they acknowledged me somehow as I sat in the audience. In any case, because I knew their real names, I felt somehow “in.” It’s an intoxicating feel, the giddiness of those who become intimately involved with the stage: the feeling that we belong somewhere. I developed a crush on theatre that day.
I saw Les Miserables on Broadway soon after that. Who knows why my parents let me go (I wasn’t even allowed to watch Doogie Howser). I guess they didn’t want me to feel left out, having missed so much family action because I was born much later than my teenage siblings. A need to belong permeates most of life, yes?
I didn’t understand half of Les Mis (French Revolution? Prostitutes?) But my god did I sob when it became clear Val Jean would die. I was hysterical for the last twenty minutes of the show, leaning into my sister and not even watching. Sitting close to the last row of the balcony, I had a visceral emotional experience such as I have only ever felt at live performance. I fell deeply, earth-shatteringly in love that day.
But last year, theatre and I broke up. The manic romance of the lifestyle was no longer enough.
Theatre is romantic: that determination of pluck and passion overriding limited resources. That group effort, a unity of direction and focus. That chance to touch a life, an audience member who feels the words and actions taking place in real time in a deeply resonant bone marrow place. That sense of belonging.
Nothing beats the high of these experiences.
On the other hand, theatre is like a bad relationship: it never pays the rent. At the end of every production, that manic high slides sharply into tears and soul-crushing emptiness. There is no stability; theatre is never satisfied with you. As you peddle yourself in one job interview after another, you get an overwhelming sense that you are never enough.
There is little opportunity to get ahead in theatre. Even after ten years of professional work, I had to fight like a newsboy to get paid fairly on one off-Broadway show. My experience mattered little in an industry that will cut corners by undervaluing people. While I loved my long-ish term part-time theatre gig in NYC, I was constantly looking for something else to survive. That job was a microcosm of a relationship you stay in too long: I loved it and appreciated it, but we were just meant to be friends. No matter how much of my heart I gave to it, I was just not the “one” for it. I would never be full-time.
Now I’m doing this other thing: narrative nonfiction. It’s why I’m in London, to study a craft I only became aware of a few years ago. Theatre is so obvious, it’s a crush on George Clooney. Any old seven year old can have an affair with theatre. Theatre is kind of a whore.
No seven year old wants to be the next Paul Theroux or David Foster Wallace. Complexity of thought and awareness of the wider world only come with age; you learn there are more career opportunities than doctor or ballerina or policeman. Les Mis was broad enough that even my seven year old self could fall victim to its emotional manipulation. Narrative nonfiction is a personal, hard won discovery. It’s subdued, not flashy. It creates the same kind of life-transforming resonance, but in a private, eternal form: you can touch and carry a book. This writing is more satisfying: it suits my innate confessional need. I can write a story or essay or book and it will live fully on the page, a complete entity. When I wrote plays, I always needed a crowd of others to make my work live, and those crowds were hard to come by.
This is a typical second marriage. I’ve grown up and better understand what is important, what I want. I want a sense of gratification that is less dependent on others. This marriage involves sitting quietly alone in a room most of the time, and being content with being alone. How mature, right?
But I saw the Les Mis movie earlier this week…I mouthed every word to every song, stuck in the recesses of my memory from years of detailed soundtrack comparisons. My god did I cry.
I wish I could have been a part of that movie, to act as one small but necessary facet of group creation. I miss theatre. I ache for that sense of belonging, no matter how ephemeral and fabricated it may be.
My divorce was the right decision for my mental health. Theatre could never love me as much as I loved it. I love narrative nonfiction much less, and my smaller investment of emotion means there is less chance of getting hurt. There is a chance for a mutual and deeply satisfying, if reserved, relationship. Partners who sleep separately, I suppose, rather than having mind-blowing sex every night (a metaphor that is weird but appropriate).
But I guess I’m learning that clichés are annoyingly true. You never really get over your first love.