“The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time.” – Stella Adler
Living in Milford, Pa is mostly a feeling of living in the sticks. But it does have its unique moments of inspiration. Now by this I don’t mean to denigrate the town or its surrounding lands. By all accounts, it has a great and varied history, rich with persona and events that have been part and parcel of shaping our country. In my obsessive nature of having to find out everything about everything, I have done surface research on the area I now call home and have found personal connections.
One of my childhood icons, James Blish, not only called this place home but he was instrumental in forming a writer’s workshop that hosted numerous other writing deities from my past. Damon Knight and Judith Merril (co-founders), Anne McCaffrey, Aldiss Budrys, and Fredric Pohl all attended – along with some of the most influential people in the history of speculative fiction like Lester DelRay, Gardener Dozios and Harlan Ellison.
The modern conservancy movement was also founded right here as well. The actress who held the dying form of Abraham Lincoln resided here and donated the blood stained flag she had rested his head upon to the local historical society. President Kennedy dedicated the old governor’s mansion to the state parks. And Bill Clinton even made a campaign stop for Hillary here in 2008. Politicians, actors, movers and shakers have all visited, lived and called Milford and Pike County a home away from home.
With its close proximity to New York City, the place has drawn from some of the greatest and talented.
You may not notice that right now, with the economy what it is and everyone suffering. But I will grant the place its spot in history and culture. Lord knows I have been in contact with the latter here for the better part of the two years I am here. I have met and / or become acquainted with photographers, actors, musicians and artist of all shapes and sizes.
Although the area is far from the perceived “foul mouthed mountain people” some from nearby metropolitan cities define the residents of the locale as being, to me, it still feels like the sticks.
Yet, I am often surprised by the moments I experience from time to time. Moments that take me back and even inspire.
One such moment came to me recently as I attended the Delaware Valley Middle School production of HONK!
I am friends with some of the students in the cast and crew (through various music functions like open mics and festivals – I do have a mild music following in this town), and some of the parents of those in the production. So, to support them, and to get some kind of theater in my system, I attended the Sunday matinee performance.
What I saw and felt connected me, though in a most limited fashion, back to my theatrical roots. I heard, post show, some comments about voices and orchestration and sets. My head had to shake as this was not only a middle school production, filled with middle and high school participants – not to mention a school staff production team – and not some Broadway extravaganza.
But it was more than the comments and snarkiness of them that had me shaking my head. It was the lack of understanding of what these uninitiated masses were witnessing. It was births. Births of passion and connections and a whole new level of human understanding and interactions that was taking place before their somewhat jaded eyes.
“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen,” writes P. S. Barber, author of Cassie Draws the Universe. “A neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
“A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
And as more real as you can get, these audience members failed to see the ignition of the passions and connections, the beauty of life itself actually taking place before their eyes. As much as they might ‘ohh’ and ‘ahhh’ when witnessing a baby taking its first steps and saying its first words, they fail to see that this is exactly what took place before their gilded eyes.
With a critical eye, as any reviewer will tell you they have on hand with them at all times, one could spot the off key note, the juvenile apertures of the set designs, the simplistic choreography. Anyone who has director or cast or design a show can spot the lack of challenging choices taken with characters and motives and movements.
But its not about these things. It is about the exposure to the art form, “the greatest of all art forms,” as Oscar Wilde correctly pointed out. These young people not only learned the craft, they learned to become, they learned that there are other families beside their immediate mother/father/sister/brother. They learned to open their souls and drink in what Wilde said was “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
One young lady in the crew learned how to run the sound board by herself. She was amazed and thankful and full of excitement. This young high school student also learned the impact she could have as a role model for her young counterparts in the production. And it made her feel humbled.
My friend, whose twelve year old daughter took to her theatrical experiences like, well, a duck to water. She was emboldened, she was ecstatic, she was buoyant, and she couldn’t wait to do more. For her, this meant a whole year of waiting before the next production. She had made a connection to an art form, to her new extended family. And it made her the better for it.
These lessons you cannot teach in a classroom or get from a book. These are life experiences that not only enrich the participants but the whole of society as well. Stella Adler, among others, recognize theater as the “spiritual and social x-ray of our time.”
In times past, from the days of early theater, which Aristotle pointed out in Poetics as being a ritual of sacred mysteries that did not make the audience fast or march in procession but did offer purification and healing, theater has been both entertainment as well as that reflection of culture so needed for man to grow.
E.A. Bucchianeri, author of Brushstrokes of a Gadfly , said of the art form that it is a “magician’s trick-boxes where the golden memories of dramatic triumphs linger like nostalgic ghosts, and where the unexplainable, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic and the absurd are routine occurrences on and off the stage.”
These “routine occurrences” are but mirrors for us to laugh or cry or ponder their importance. They are the society’s barometer. From the days of Shakespeare and before, to the modern tales by David Mamet and Tom Stoppard.
Kim Catttrall once said of theater that it “is immediate, it’s alive, you’re there with the audience, it can’t be done again and again and again and again, it’s organic.” And she was right. With each performance, unlike movies or television, it is of the moment. And each time it is performed some new little thing is revealed to the audience, if only they take note to see it.
And not just the ‘lesson’ of the story, the mirror it reflects on the world that was, the world that is or the world we would wish it to be. For instance, my friend attended one show as his daughter’s mic started slipping from her head, and would eventually fall off. As the orchestra played, it began to drown her out and he was annoyed because he couldn’t hear her – the very reason he was there. He noted that he had two more chances to come and hear his daughter’s amazing voice and watch her budding skills as an actress. But then he said, in the very next breath, exactly what I talk about. The actor portraying her husband (a high school understudy of great talent himself), Gently stroked her hair, in character, which added a depth to the scene. In truth, he was replacing her headphone mic.
A moment that will never again occur. All the right pieces in place, all the wrong pieces as well. And BAM! You have an organic moment of theater that reflected society. Not just the play’s timeless admonition to accept others despite their cursory differences, and to celebrate those differences. But a reflection on the selfless and simple act of helping another human being. Chivalry and compassion are not dead, it says to us. Doing something for others while expecting nothing in return is an admirable trait.
And theater can also help us “fantasize about a world we aspire to”, as Willem Dafoe once said. A world of just such compassion and wonder. A world where good triumphs, the human spirit can’t be broken and, despite the woes of the world, people are basically good.
“Searching for Utopia never really ends – it’s stubborn in that way,” points out Josh Roche, Assistant Director of, Utopia, a new writing project at Soho Theatre, “Every hell or dystopia that people arrive at is led by an urge for utopia.”
And the youngsters who performed in or were part of HONK! at Delaware Valley Middle School are on the cusp of discovering a world rich with this search, this quest for answers and this mirror of our world that was, is and could be. They are now in a fraternity whose members now have “theater in their blood” and will never truly get loose of, even if, like many of us, they go on to do different things in their lives. And that, dear reader, is the upshot of what the audience may have failed to grasp. Or what they have grasped but failed to realize.
Charles B Reynolds is an author, songwriter and journalist, who wrote SF/fantasy/horror book reviews during the 1990’s under both his own name and the alias Anson Edwards. He also boasts a short but varied theatrical career spanning from high school productions, an impromptu pantomime class in Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theatre, community theater, summer stock and semi-professional work through the 1990’s. * Disclaimer – No monetary gain or other considerations were received from the authors, the publishers nor the school mentioned in this article (ticket to the show was paid for without any recompense). Nor were any monetary or other considerations received from groups, persons or business entities mentioned.
Brainy Quotes – Theater
Williams, Douglas, “A perfect future? Soho Theatre’s quest for Utopia”, A Younger Theater , 28 June 2012, web, 25 November 2013, http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/a-perfect-future-soho-theatres-quest-for-utopia/