What Play Changed My Life?

Is there a play that changed my life? The American Theatre Wing wants to know, and as I look through the contest entries, I figured I would chime in. However, there is a 350 word limit to the entries and I am long winded, so I will post it here in lieu of disqualification.

I honestly don’t know if I could look through the list and pick one in particular that stands out as the “one.” My experience with live theatre didn’t even start with theatre itself. It started with film musicals and branched outwards from there. As a child I wore out a VHS of Mary Poppins and recall the annual viewings of The Sound of Music on television (though I was always sent to bed, incrementally seeing more and more each year – I didn’t know there was a wedding until I was 10!) It was always striking to me seeing Julie Andrews as a stoic brunette Edwardian one day, and a blonde tomboyish novice the next. Plus, I was affected by the music in each property.

As a young child, it was these films and others (such as The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Brigadoon) that first introduced me to music theatre and the idea of a song as an extension of the storytelling. This awareness was further promulgated with ample exposure to AMC, when it used to be the “American Movie Classics” channel with Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney (oh those were the days…) plus, there was also my father’s vested interest in the film adaptations of The Sound of Music and South Pacific.

Now, I’ve always been observant and curious. Ever since I can remember, when I became interested in something I went out of my way to learn and study about it, whether it was my fascination with tornados when I was 7, the Kennedy administration when I was 8, or the Tudor/Elizabethan era when I was 9. Watching The Sound of Movies on A&E back in 1995 triggered a similar reaction. I delved into the R&H movies, and read everything I could. There was a particularly incredibly coffee table book by Ethan Mordden simply titled Rodgers & Hammerstein that offered detailed history, analysis, photos, and was just a beautiful history of the composing team which is sadly out of print. It was through this book that I really started to understand that these films (with the exception of State Fair) had originally been created for Broadway. I guess you could say the rest is history…

Looking at the milestones in my theatregoing life there are several moments that come to mind: The first time I ever entered a theatre. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where it was, nor what I was there for. Concert? Play? Madrigal Pageant? But that is beside the point. Lingering in my mind is this indescribable feeling of entering the space. It was in the tradition of those late 19th/early 20th century palaces. There was this aura about the decor, the way the lights illuminated the space, that non-descript smell that is both simultaneously musty and clean. Add to that the anticipation that something was about to happen, plus the excitement that I was missing school to be there (I recall Sr. Benedict, my first grade teacher being there). There was something gothic and foreign about the space itself that resonated with me. I was awestruck – and it is a feeling I can recall every time I enter a theatre. For some reason it was especially vivid to me (and probably why I mention it) when I visited the Mark Hellinger Theatre last week.

And there are other moments: The first time I ever auditioned for a show – in the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Peekskill (dodged a bullet on that production of The Sound of Music, let me tell you…). The first cast album I ever owned – the lavish gatefold LP of original London cast of My Fair Lady. My first trip to see a Broadway show (Miss Saigon). My first ever onstage save in my high school production of My Fair Lady (one of these days, I’ll bring up those fond memories – maybe even some embarrassing video!) Also, my first time visiting the stage door of a major show (Noises Off!i). My first closing performance (Bernadette’s Gypsy; which also constituted my first backstage tour of a theatre). My first opening night (The Light in the Piazza). The 2006 Tony Awards dress rehearsal. When I see Love Loss and What I Wore on Sunday night, I will continue to add to this list.

You see, I would love to pick one and say “This is it!” But it is near impossible for me to choose “the play” as each and every live theatrical event I have seen has in one way or another informed my sensibility. I could pick some favorites, and highlight the extraordinary visceral reactions I’ve had, but if I name one I start finding myself listing everything. Even the extraordinary failures have educated me on how to be a discerning audience member. Every single time I enter a theatre it counts as a stop along the way. Live theatre for me provides a catharsis impossible to find elsewhere, and there is nothing more intimate and personal than feeling that communication between yourself and the story onstage. I’m grateful for what I’ve had, and look forward to what’s to come.

"The Play That Changed My Life" Contest!

What was the play that changed your life? That’s what the American Theatre Wing asked several contemporary playwrights for its upcoming release of The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influence Them, which takes a look at that moment in these artist’s lives that turned them on to the theatre. Nineteen playwrights have contributed to the book, which will be released by Applause books this December. The choices may surprise you, as it covers the gamut of David Henry Hwang seeing Equus in San Francisco, to young Edward Albee seeing Jimmy Durante and the star elephant in Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo at the Hippodrome in 1935 (I personally love the randomness of that one – it just goes to show you never know what sort of theatre experience will be the one that propels a person’s life). The project was the brainchild of the Wing’s Executive Director Howard Sherman and is edited by Ben Hodges (Theatre World), with an introduction by Paula Vogel. I can only hope that this will be the first in a series of volumes (actors, composers/lyricists, directors, designers, producers, etc).

However, The American Theatre Wing is curious to know the play that changed your life. They have announced an online essay contest in conjunction with the book’s release:

“What show had the greatest impact upon you, when you saw it in the course of your life, and most importantly why it meant so much to you. Entries (limited to 350 words) will be judged based on their creativity, their clarity and perhaps most importantly, for how they convey your passion for the theatre.”

So tell ATW about the play that changed your life – those few hours in the theatre, at any age, in any theatre, that had the greatest impact on your life and your perception of theatre — and have the opportunity to share your story with the thousands of visitors to the American Theatre Wing’s website while getting the chance to win an autographed copy of The Play That Changed My Life and other theatrical books from Applause Publishing.

The contest entry period is from Monday, November 2nd until Sunday, November 29th. To enter, visit the American Theatre Wing online. The final expert panel judging the contest includes ATW Board of Directors Chairman and President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin; Applause Books’ Editorial Director Carol Flannery; award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and former Time Magazine arts editor and divine theatre blogger, Janice Simpson. Additional prizes will be given based on voting by the general public, which will continue through December 11.

In the meanwhile, here’s what two Tony-nominated leading ladies had to say about the theatre experience that forever changed their lives:

Martha Plimpton:

‘I think it was in a strange way kind of a natural progression, you know? My mother was an actress, everyone in our lives were in show business, I grew up in the theatre world in New York, my mother was in the original company of Hair. So it just kind of came naturally, it just kind of evolved. And by the time I was eight years old it was already sort of a foregone conclusion. If we weren’t in the theatre – we went to the theatre constantly. So it just seemed like a normal thing to do with your life. It didn’t seem odd or different or strange or far away at all. I think in the early years of the Park, the Delacorte, there were things that we saw there that made me just sort of mesmerized. I couldn’t tell you the first one, but I do remember seeing Raul Julia in Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center and thinking, “That’s cool.” And then when I was a little older, I guess about sixteen or seventeen, I saw John Malkovich in Burn This. And that was a performance that made me feel like that was a perfectly legitimate thing to want to be an actor — almost even respectable, possibly.’

Allison Janney:

‘There’s one that comes to mind right now, which for some reason always does, even though there have been many plays I’ve seen that have had a powerful impact on me: my mother took me to see Miss Margarida’s Way with Estelle Parsons and I just remember being blown away by that, by her performance. I was confused by it; I was like, “Is she a real teacher?” I was just giddy with that play and I’ve always sort of had a secret desire to do it, even though I probably wouldn’t be right for it. I just remember that having a big impact on me. I thought it was really fun — I was shocked by it and I think I was just young enough that I just thought she was a crazy woman up on stage and that kind of intrigued me, and I loved that play’