Theater isn’t first and foremost an art. Far from it. And it isn’t drama, either.
When I was a boy, winter and summer school breaks were spent in the mountains. The winters were for playing in the snow and skiing, the summers were for hiking. Both my uncle and aunt were stage actors. Since the theater season breaks were parallel to my school breaks, most of the trips were taken by us together. The summer vacations, even more than the winter ones, were when the actors would memorize their lines as well as create and prepare their roles. Therefore, for me, when I hear the word “theater”, the first thing that comes to mind is the memory of my uncle pacing back and forth with a script in his hand, mumbling to himself. Were we on a two-week trip, I guess he would spend the first week mumbling and the second week walking or sitting around with glazed eyes and a solemn forehead; seemingly his mind’s eye was set on other things than the mountainous glory around us. I asked him about that once, what he was doing, and he said that he was “acting in his head.”
Years later, the expression he used I vividly remembered when I was listening to Arthur Rubinstein, the classical pianist, telling his interviewer how he (the virtuoso) travelled by train or airplane, from one city to another, to play concerts and how he couldn’t, obviously, bring a piano along with him for the ride, and how he didn’t need it—he was able to prepare by playing the instrument “in his head”.
But I digressed. Back to the theater. As I was telling you, the memory of seeing my uncle and aunt comes first.
The second place that hearing the word theater takes me to is backstage. And there, before it is the intimate view of the behind (pun intended) of the stage curtain, at the feet of which I would be standing and looking up to see what machinery I can spot that will tear it all apart like love in that song from the Joy Division, I’m in the actor’s changing room (which in Polish we call garderoba). I can smell that room as I’m writing this; after the play, if the play was any good, it would smell of flowers from the grateful audience and the perfume of actors’ preparation for the post-show bohemian party. Before, it would smell of sweat, make-up, full ashtrays, and coffee. When I was a boy, the way Polish actors made coffee was like this: You’d take a glass. Set its little companion glass plate aside, it’ll come in handy in a moment. Put two (or more!) heaping spoons of ground coffee in the glass, usually adding plenty of sugar right there and then. Next, fill the glass two-thirds full of boiling water from an old, East German electric kettle. Cover the glass with the plate and let the coffee steep undisturbed. Light up a cigarette to ease the impatience that comes with waiting for it to brew. After a long minute or two, it’s ready. Keeping the cigarette in your mouth to have your hands free and tilting your head to the side to avoid the smoke going in your eyes (you’d be squinting anyway), or having just had put the cigarette out, you’d remove the plate, put the hot glass on top of it, stir loudly with the silver spoon if you had bad manners and were a rich actor or quietly stir with the stainless steel spoon if your manners were good and you were poor, and finally, you’d begin to noisily (good or bad manners and how much money you had didn’t matter at that point) slurp the coffee, with a content look on your face. There was almost always another cigarette to go with it and almost never any milk. My G-d, what a good coffee, and what a ritual. But I digressed, again. Sorry. Back to the theater once more.
Thirdly, the word theater makes me think of my discovery of who, in Polish, we call sufler in his budka suflera—the prompter in his booth. (Forgive me if you already know this when I explain that the prompter, invisible to the theater audience, is a person who cues actors when they forget their lines.) I can remember watching a play for the first time from the stage left, having been sternly told beforehand that I would be allowed to stay there on the condition of being absolutely still and mute for the entire duration of the act. So there I was, scared and excited, frozen in spacetime like a monkey that has just spotted a snake. The stage lights went on, the actors took their places, the curtain went up, and action began. I was shocked to notice a man in the floor with his eyes on me. His head protruded from the booth in the stage floor. He only had to prompt an actor once, during the time that I was watching, and he did that in a very quiet voice, but I was not impressed. Actually, I believe that I might have been as disgusted and disappointed with him being there as I had been surprised to discover him in the first place. I thought that for the actors to have the prompter present during the play was cheating the audience. That was not okay. But then, how was it possible, I thought further, that when a teacher at school would call me in front of the class and ask me sneaky questions and when I had to rely on some colleague of mine to prompt me, it was also cheating—but that was okay? Well, there goes my boyhood’s very first moral conundrum.
As you can tell by now, my theater isn’t performance art, or drama, or the so-called cultural institution that during the so-called pandemic needs to get money from the so-called government in order for the actors with a forty-year long career of excellence to not start working at check-outs for some international supermarket chain, nor is my theater the building small or bolshoi. Theater is the mumbling uncle, the coffee, the dusty curtain, and the bloody prompter.
I wonder, then, if it is at all possible for you and me, or other persons among themselves, to ever agree on anything a little more important and abstract than, say, a grocery shopping list, when we are going to speak words like theater, like work, like freedom—without clarifying first what the hell the concept we are about to discuss means, exactly—not only in thought but also in feeling. What do you say?
That sort of ambiguity bothers me.
November 02, 2021
Thanks for reading my stuff. I kiss you on the mouth.