Never underestimate the power of theater–or kids

I’m grateful to my parents for many things: my education, encouraging my writing, happy holidays, raising me in New York City, and heir sterling examples of community service and devotion. And of course, their love.

I’m also grateful that they exposed me to the city’s cultural riches, from museums to theater. Without asking whether or not I was interested, they started taking me to operas when I was 12. At an even-younger age, I was accompanying them to concerts, musical theater and ballet.  There was no hesitation or apologizing; they simply assumed I’d be interested.

I remember glorious nights on Broadway and off-Broadway and Shakespeare in the Park. American classics and Jewish theater and Yiddish theater, theater in big venues and in JCCs and on side streets. It was the start of a magnificent, fun, interesting, and inspiring journey.

Some people might see their lack of “asking permission” as “presumptuous,” but I thought it reflected their faith in me–that I might very well like and understand what they liked and understood. It was a bond between us.

My older brother, who was more “rebellious” in his youth, decided he didn’t like opera–surely the grandest form of theater–because our parents did. Yet, somewhere in high school, his music teacher convinced him otherwise. My brother began, surreptitiously, to listen to Puccini’s “La Boheme” (warning me not to tell our parents). Eventually, he became a regular opera goer, even during four years of medical school. (Of course, at that point, my parents were aware–and “kvelled,” a Yiddish word for drawing satisfaction from the actions of others, especially children.) Only recently did he admit to me how grateful he was, particularly to my father, to introducing him to all that “gorgeous music.” And to the shows of Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc.

I tried with my own children to apply the same “lesson.” Sure, I exercised some caution. I remember the friendly “debate” I had with dear Sam Kuba, Theatre Harrisburg’s executive director, about bringing or not bringing my children to see “The Man of La Mancha.” It was a special production–the last show at the “old house” before the move to Whitaker Center for musicals. On the one hand, it was one of my favorite shows, dramatically powerful. On the other, I was concerned about that one scene between the mutineers and Dulcinea.

But a few years later, I did take them to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” at Theatre Harrisburg–even though we had to do a little talking about the near-seduction scene. But they could “handle” it at that point. And the older one could almost handle (we saw it at her insistence) “Veronica’s Room,” at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg–probably the scariest play we took in while in centrall Pa. There were shows “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (with the late Mark Arner), which was a little risque but hilarious. A couple in the row ahead of us walked out, but we aced it.

After a while, my kids developed their own tastes — and that was fine. In fact, that was wonderful. But I wanted them to be exposed to theater, lots of theater, and appreciate its wonders. Later, they could decide.

Recently, I was particularly pleased that our older daughter (who squirmed through her first live show, “The Secret Garden,” many years ago) sat through “Richard III” at the Folger Theatre, mesmerized. More importantly, she was not intimidated by our “adult views” when we discussed the play later but stood up for her own viewpoint.

Something funny happened that night. We noticed that the woman sitting next to me was accompanied by a boy who looked to be no more than 12, maybe less. We kind of wondered, maybe he was really too young for all that blood and gore and palpable evil. But when the performance was over, I commended him for being so attentive.

His mother laughed. She said he really had no choice–he was one of the understudies.

Some parents might have hesitated, but she had confidence in her choice. The boy looked excited, probably waiting his turn for the spotlight.

Acting not only option in theater

On rainy weekend days in Brooklyn, growing up, my father, brother, and I used to read plays–dividing up the parts among us. Later, when my brother “dropped out” as an adolescent to hang out with friends, my father and I got more and more-plum parts, of course. (My mother wisely was taking naps during these “staged readings.”)

While I love theater and used to harbor dreams long ago of being a singer-dancer in stage musicals, the reality was the only people who thought I could sing well were my parents (and my shower, if you could personify it). My dancing was on a higher level, but it was still unlikely I was going to be a Broadway hoofer. I even had (embarrassing to admit it) a hard time getting cast in high-school musicals, though I sometimes did OK in plays. Guess it was my lot to write about theater, not necessarily to be in it.

Fast forward a number of years. I now have two kids, each gifted in different ways as it relates to the theater. (Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but… ) Helena, the elder, has a very good singing voice, but was too self-conscious for the solo parts that came and could have come her way. Cynthia, the younger, was a born “performer,” when it came to words and emotions, but didn’t have the voice that would have gotten her cast in musicals. Now, as young adults, Helena is doing karaoke without much fear, but would probably still shy away from repeated, full performances. Cynthia found directing more to her liking than acting, and in general, has opted for a career in teaching/poetry rather than theater.

Still, I learned something from the years they did spend performing, and from all the productions–community and professional–I’ve watched in NYC, central Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. That is: if you love theater, if you love its collaborative efforts and audiences, there’s more than one way to be involved than acting or solo singing.

First of all, if that’s your dream, you should always try. But if you really don’t feel those are your “thing,” there are so many other “things” you can do to be involved in theater.

I’m not saying anything you don’t know. But just wanted to reiterate that there’s always the chorus, or nonverbal parts. I still remember the impression the actor playing the plumber in Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg’s production of “Barefoot in the Park” made just based on his facial expressions. And there are a ton of things to do behind the scenes, especially in community theater–lighting, sets, costumes, stage managing, assistant stage managing, maybe even directing. Not to mention playing music. Or you could do something vital to the success of a theater but a further step removed–like help with publicity, or sell tickets.

It’s not easy sometimes to convince kids to do anything, but if we can get the point across that there’s no reason not to be involved in something you love just because you’re not “the star” of a production, we would have communicated a very  important lesson. See you on stage, or behind it, or near it!