Let’s say, for a moment, that I am a bird.
Obviously, I am not a bird, as birds do not possess the abilities to type on a keyboard (at least, as far as we know). However, if I were standing on stage atop a ladder, yourself in the audience, and I say that “I am a bird”, there is no reason for you not to believe me. If I was on film or television, however, and I say that I’m a bird, well, you’ll view me largely as just a guy saying “I am a bird”. If I actually was a bird on film, you’d have to animate me or do a voiceover of footage of an actual bird or something along those lines. In film, we (generally) have to take things as we see them; what you see is what you get. In theatre, however, the audience must suspend their disbelief and bite the bullet: by saying that “I am a bird” while standing atop that ladder, I am, in fact, a bird.
In short, live theatre produces a certain kind of magic and imagination that usually isn’t afforded to us in other mediums. To top it off, it’s live, it’s happening right there in front of you, and no two experiences are ever the same: each time you see a show, the experience that you have is entirely unique in its own right. As such, it’s no surprise that people get swept up in theatrical productions again and again, year after year. Some people become patrons of the theatre, while others get inspired to make some theatre of their own.
What’s even more amazing is how sometimes those silly little inklings can actually translate into a real career, as those little handwritten plays from one’s youth may serve the basis for penning hard-hitting and powerful dramas later on down the line. Yet all of those moments stem from seeing some sort of transformative show in one’s young life, be it a professional Broadway production or a small group of friends who put something together in the confines of their basement. That first magical moment can happen literally anywhere at any time …
… and that’s where The Play That Changed My Life steps in.
Produced by the American Theatre Wing, this book runs through a gamut of influential playwrights, asking them each to simply share their thoughts on a play that influenced them, although, as each essay unfolds, we see that this book isn’t as much about a single play to a single person as much as it is about the first moment that the world of live theatre “clicked” with these individual playwrights. Some stories are frightfully funny, some are dry and mannered, and some manage to mix comedy and drama like a great show itself. In truth, this is not a “hit-or-miss” type of affair (as any compendium of essays generally is): it’s just a series of bright spots all intermingling with each other.
After a series of brief but engaging prefaces, it’s Paula Vogel who give us our very first introduction, skimming through some of her own personal highlights from the essays ahead while also noting the one unexpected thing that brought her to tears: the unconventional. Vogel remembers one night hearing buzz about one particular new playwright named Maria Irene Fornes, eventually venturing out to see a little play called Fefu and Her Friends. Vogel patiently sat through the first act, but wasn’t too impressed by this story of eight women — all college friends — who get together in Fefu’s house to create a theatre education program. Nothing mind-blowing or life-changing: they were just talking and cracking jokes.
Then, Act Two came. The audience was divided up into four groups, and what they soon saw was that the stage that we knew as Fefu’s home was just one “room” of her house. The audience was now cycled through four different rooms — each with a pairing of the characters we saw in Act One, and suddenly, we got to see these women talking about their personal relationships on very intimate terms — just like how people would venture off in conversations together in real life.
Four different scenes were going on at the exact same time, and the audience toured through them, suddenly realizing just how much was at stake in the Act previous and coming to terms with how much character depth was now being unveiled before them. Paula Vogel identified with a character bearing her own first name, and soon said she found herself weeping in her seat:
I could feel every assumption I had about what made a play being shattered. I left the theatre realizing that plays could be written that were not cognitively understood, but emotionally felt. In the years to come, I never did understand a play that Irene Fornes wrote. But I felt them, intuited them, responded to them through my body.
Often, the essays here discuss moments similar to Vogel’s: moments wherein they realize the sheer power and potential of the live theatrical performance and what it can accomplish. In Tina Howe’s remarkably short (three and a half pages) but infectiously fun essay, she discusses how she only wrote her first play because she was a terrible fiction writer. A friend of hers demanded that it be staged and before long, Howe was surprised to see that her chorus of pigeons was achieved with a very simple effect: three people on three ladders talking to each other onstage (I am a bird, indeed). After being handed her first Ionesco play while abroad, she realized that she suddenly felt at “home” in doing theatre, and she herself kept pushing the limits with her own works, going as far as to have the majority of her play Milk and Water actually take place underwater.
Yet for some people, it was a particular performer that drew them into the world of drama. For Christopher Durang, it was Robert Morse in a production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For David Ives, it was seeing a production of A Delicate Balance (by his favorite playwright at the time, Edward Albee) with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (and, as fate would have it, he would actually get to meet Hume Cronyn at a movie studio some 20 years later, and simply couldn’t help but gush about how much that play changed his life… something that Hume thought Jessica should hear as well, arranging a meeting with the young Ives later on that very week).
Diana Son, meanwhile, fell in love with Hamlet in high school, was excited upon hearing her class would go see a production of it … until she found out it was a woman who would be playing the troubled Prince of Denmark (even the teacher unsuccessfully tried to get refunds). Then, as the play started — assured it would be terrible — she kept waiting for this female Hamlet to appear. For awhile, she thought the moment would never come, seeing instead a powerful, magnetic man take the role, apparently as a last-minute addition.
It wasn’t until half-way through that she realized the actress (Diane Verona in the Public Theater’s 1982 production of it) wasn’t playing Hamlet as a woman, but was instead playing him as the young man she always envisioned: not the older individual we are used to associating with the part, a la Laurence Oliver or Kevin Kline. She gave the role the youthful energy it required, and before long, Son completely rediscovered the play that she already knew front-to-back by heart. That revelation was not only joyous, but it set Son on a course towards playwriting that she is still on today.
Yet while some of the non-essay interviews are slightly forced (Hodges keeps pressing John Patrick Shanley on topics he doesn’t want to seem to repeat over and over) and abstract (it’s impossible to tell whether Susan-Lori Parks is displaying hubris or camaraderie in saying that she can never really be forced to choose one play, moment, or individual that influenced her), many of these essays remain as powerful as they are personal.
In fact, the book ends on an incredible high note with Doug Wright’s intensely funny, intensely personal essay entitled simply “Bruce and Charles”. It is here that Wright not only shows us his talent at creating killer hooks to his pieces (first line: “For most of my childhood, I was in love with my best friend, Bruce.”), but also at drawing us into his world heart and soul. He goes on to describe his close relation with Bruce for most of his childhood, Bruce being a handsome boy who shared the same wildly creative spirit with Wright to create short films for school and to install “pop art” instillations in their bedrooms.
Bruce eventually came out of the closet to everyone he knew, but Wright had not, and it was Bruce that eventually helped him not only come to that revelation, but also to see the live theatre. Though fringe shows in New York were always a little bit crazy (and occasionally free), it was Bruce who took Wright to see the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and a production of a show called The Mystery of Irma Vep, written by and starring the madcap genius of the naughty Charles Ludlam.
It was that very show — with werewolves, vampires, wild hogs, and copious amount of blood mixing with both high-brow literary references and an obscene amount of sex jokes — that wound up making regular patrons out of Wright and his best friend, as each Ridiculous production tended to outdo the previous one with its outrageous antics. Yet the show was also upfront about its sexual politics as well, and it is in here that Wright suddenly felt like he found a group whose beliefs reflected his own, and, through the theatre, found a new sort of family to relate to. Wright was hooked, and later down the line, he himself wound up writing his own show for Ridiculous.
Unfortunately, Charles Ludlam went into the hospital with double-pneumonia some years later, eventually passing away and causing Wright to leave a note of his own on the makeshift memorial that emerged outside the Ridiculous, saying, in somewhat cheesy terms (as Wright himself admits): “Dear Mr. Ludlam, When I heard you characters speak for the first time, I started to find my own voice, too. Thank-you.” As much as the loss of Ludlam ultimately effected Wright, the thing that was only more worrisome is how his lifelong friend and fan of the Ridiculous, Bruce, would not come down to see the memorial, and it is later that we hear why: Bruce had been fighting his own battle, and was later revealed to be HIV-positive.
What happens after is a mix of successes and tragedies for Wright, ultimately ending on an image and moment so powerful that this very writer had a hard time holding back some waterworks of his own. Wright’s experience with Charles Ludlam is reflective of many theatrical types as well: these shows that we do together are not simply excuses to dress up in silly costumes and make a group of strangers laugh, nor are they merely avenues wherein deep social issues can be explored and discussed by audiences around the world. No.
These experiences, both in doing plays and seeing plays, ultimately bind us to the people around us, be they simple patrons or established lighting techies working for crap pay. The live, human nature of the theatrical arts connects us in the way that few artforms can, and, as the stories contained in this book prove, there is no sign of these lifelong connections halting anytime soon.
In short, The Play That Changed My Life does what it sets out to do: it gives us insight into the moments wherein our current cream-of-the-crop playwrights discovered that they would be doing this for the rest of their lives. Yet this book actually goes one step further: with each impassioned personal anecdote, the sheer love of all things theatrical comes bleeding out of these pages, soon becoming infectious enough to make you want to pick up a play, check for local showtimes, or maybe even create a bit of theatre by yourself.
Perhaps all you need is an empty stage, a ladder, and a line to say. Maybe that line is something you’re going to write yourself. After all, that one line is how each one of these playwrights started off themselves …