As a child, I seldom had the luxury of attending live performances. It had everything to do with being poor and living in an area largely devoid of these types of activities. If I did have the opportunity to attend a play, concert or other such presentation, I knew, and knew quite well, not to shout anything out. As a matter of fact, my goal was to remain still and observe.
I observed the behavior of my peers. I observed the behavior of the performers, whom I had trouble identifying with. I couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in speaking in such an out-of-date way. I was also petrified of being in front of any crowd larger than three.
Why would anyone care to stand in front of hundreds of people and speak in a way no one could understand? Nah, it wasn't for me. They were talking nonsense and I was hearing nonsense. It all seemed like a royal waste of time.
In seventh grade, my school performed Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. It was my introduction to plays and the entertainment they could offer.
I desperately wanted the role of Fagin. I was everything that embodied the dark antagonist except brave enough to try out for the part. I considered a lesser role but decided it wasn't for me because (A) the role wasn't big enough and (B) I was confident my nervousness would cause me to forget every line, or, if my role required no lines, I would simply trip over props and subsequently make a fool out of myself and ruin the play. I decided to work behind the scenes, where my talents could truly be appreciated, as a stagehand.
My elementary understanding of the stage lasted until college. I had the privilege of experiencing The Vagina Monologues and other plays that were either interactive or heady. I still wasn't ready for the leading role, but I had matured past my pre-pubescent understanding of theater. Thank God and Eve Ensler.
Interactive plays have always amused me the most. I love the idea of being able to shout out to the protagonist, "Hey, you're pretty cool, man." Notice, I say idea. I like it when an audience member can offer a jagged quip, but the majority of shouts and taunts at interactive events are neither unique nor funny. I fear my "hey, hey, get a brain, mean guy" would only be slightly better than my neighbor's "dude, you suck," although my delivery would be far superior.
Free Cookies and Paranoia
All of this was on my mind as I entered Richard Mansfield Dickinson Theatre (better known in these parts as the Spotlight Theatre) at 1381 Riverside Drive last Saturday evening. I knew that, at 55 years of age, the play was not only older than many mothers, but was also the "longest currently running show in the United States."
The Drunkard debuted in 1953 as a condensed version of William W. Pratt's "The Nights in a Barroom." It was originally written to discourage drinking but has since been transformed into the "comedic vein." The current script was written by the very man the theatre (where the play is performed each Saturday evening at 7:30pm) is named for, Richard Mansfield Dickinson. The building was also once his home.
I was curious to see how The Drunkard has lasted this long and then creatively suggest how much it might have changed throughout the years using my honed conjecture skills.
"Maybe it's just that good."
"Maybe it's the free pretzels and cookies. Free cookies are a nice touch."
I said, finally settling on a decent hypothesis, "I bet it's just evolved through the years. After all, a strong foundation is just as important as staying 'current.'"
I had no idea what I was talking about, albeit, looking back, my hypothesis was close. I was just aiming for pretension, cheerio!
As I arrived, the pianist introduced herself and explained that we'd be beginning the night with a sing-a-long. Others in my party were confused.
"Is this some kind of joke everyone is in on but us?" they questioned. "It must be. No one is acting like this is strange, and it's really strange, right?"
I was fairly certain it was no joke, as John Hansen, one of the performers, had previously outlined the evening to me but I felt it might be amusing to let my peers' paranoia grow.
As the music continued and I eventually let my company in on the unfortunate fact that this was no ruse solely directed at us (we were not going to be "Punk'd"), I imagined how the revelry infused by these classic songs somehow mirrored a comfortable, rural Scandinavian pub. The evening was beginning to feel authentic. I envisioned a previous generation rabble rousing in the very same schoolhouse-like auditorium awaiting their free oatmeal raisin cookies.
After songs such as "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Bicycle Built for Two" concluded, the curtain went. We, the audience, had been encouraged to boo and hiss the antagonist and cheer and, I don't know, blow kisses to the protagonist. We obliged. One woman resoundingly intimated that the hero was welcome to accompany her home. We were a sociable crowd.
Many of the performers seemed quite comfortable in their roles and even at times seemed to mock themselves, which I appreciated. Some have been performing the play for almost as long as I have been alive. It showed.
A couple, those with lesser experience, seemed shaky or nervous. At one point, I checked to see if someone in the audience was holding cue cards. No one was.
For one of the performers, Leah Hartney, it was her debut. I had no idea. I was also pleased with the performances of John Hansen, Richard Robertson and Mel Tilley. I could have sat for several additional hours watching the three of them improvise extra scenes and been satisfied. I loved their characters and found myself rooting for each one, although they represented conflicting interests.
All the actors in the play were volunteers. Again, something I can appreciate.
The Tulsa Spotlighters, Inc. is a non-profit organization that gives back to the community by assisting other non-profit organizations in the Tulsa area and by making theatre available to local children. Had there been a Tulsa Spotlight Theatre in the rural areas surrounding Chattanooga in my youth, I would have been introduced to the favorable world of theater earlier in my life and thus been bold enough to try out for Oliver Twist.
The Drunkard was followed by The Olio, an opportunity for local talent (e.g. singers, comedians, magicians, etc.) to refine and share their talent. I was impressed and I'm only slightly easily impressed. The Olio consisted of musical comedy, a child star, a fiddle and piano duet, and a "prestidigitator deluxe" who made a quarter travel through an unopened Diet Coke and a table levitate. I don't know how he did, and I'm okay with it.
The Drunkard and The Olio, at $12 for adults, is an excellent way to spend a family evening. The performances lasted for over three hours. Three hours, which for me, were full of laughter, pretzels and an oatmeal raisin cookie, my favorite.
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