Thoughts on Repetitive Theatergoing

29 04 2011

Stark Young (1881 – 1961) was arguably the most poetically idealistic drama critic America has produced. […] Young quit a one-year stint at The New York Times because he disliked the daily grind, having to come up with an immediate response, provide a plot summary, and insert puff pieces. His preferred method was to choose which play he would review, attend it several times, and weigh his impressions before composing a well-wrought essay.

Stark Young is a kindred spirit. I make no claims to my reviews being particularly poetic or well-wrought, although I try – but I am unabashedly idealistic. I enjoy writing off-the-cuff reviews for shows that I only encounter once, but it is nice to find a historical precedent for my repetitive theatergoing and reviewing habits too.

You see, I latch onto certain shows and develop this deep, affective relationship to them. While some people have an enviable breadth of general knowledge in a particular field, I have this tendency towards (almost unbearably) close reading. When a text hooks me – a book, a film, a musical -it’s like a pebble thrown into a lake: the text is this deep, centralized nexus with a ripple effect, leading me to other texts circling around that object. I obsess.

In other words, I saw CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera for the 6th time last night. I’m feeling a little self-conscious about it. But this isn’t atypical. I saw Venice at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, I think, 8 times last fall; I was named the Venice “superfan,” which comes along with a certain amount of pride and embarrassment. (Not to mention a hoodie and autographed poster!) Before that, I saw Company with Raul Esparza about 7 times, and I saw Next to Normal and In the Heights maybe 5 or 6 times each. I went to the midnight openings of the Lord of the Rings films when I was in high school – and renewed that obsession with a day-long trilogy marathon at the Egyptian Theater this winter. (Of course I saw the AR Rahman musical adaptation in London – twice – and the musical parody Fellowship! here in LA.) I have read Tolkien and CS Lewis and Jane Austen and the Brontes and other favorite authors’ novels too many times to count. And then comes the literary tourism …

Maybe all this is just pretentious intellectual justification for being a CYCLOPS groupie lately. After all, that is how we typically think of people who invest so much money, time, and energy into a music group or film or TV show: superficially obsessed fans, entirely devoted and entirely uncritical. There is an undeniable social stigma around this sort of “teenybopper” fandom. It comes with a sense of pride in one’s detailed knowledge of a particular cultural object – coupled with a sort of self-conscious embarrassment. A fan’s investment in the object is uncomfortably close. Fandom comes with a paradoxically proud confession of guilt: “I really shouldn’t love X this much … but I do.”

What function does repetitive theatergoing serve? (Or repetitive reading or movie-watching or music-listening?) Why develop this deep, invested relationship to cultural texts?

This is a complicated question that I am endlessly struggling to tease out, but I do think my choice of the words “deep, invested relationship” is telling. Inherent in this sort of “relationship” with a cultural object is a desire to know it, inside and out. I think this sort of close, affective bond is especially strong for people who have been socially marginalized at some point in their lives; we often invest in music or theater or novels in the absence of meaningful personal relationships – or, rather, in the hope for future personal relationships that will mean as much. (As an artistic dork from Albemarle, NC, I speak from personal experience.) But I think everyone has a bit of obsessive, repetitive fandom in them …

This is because repetition can instill a comforting sense of familiarity, like a tried-and-true friendship; it is a stable bond predicated on previous encounters. I can sink into CYCLOPS now knowing every word, every chord progression, anticipating – and heightening my attention – for my favorite parts. Of course, these tend to be the musical numbers. You’ll literally see me beaming from the audience as the cast drives into “Bloodier Than the Cherry” or “Penelope” or “Galatea.”

These are moments that I have mentally repeated quite a lot lately … because, coupled with the intimate familiarity of a cultural text, there is an ever-present sense of impenetrability: the inability to ever wholly know a thing (or a person). The pebble never hits the bottom of the lake; instead, it endlessly ripples out into new contexts and meanings. CYCLOPS has me listening to Handel’s Acis and Galatea and glam rock, reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and reviewing my Greek theater history lately. As I mentioned in my last article, take a friend to see CYCLOPS, and you’ll likely walk away with yet another cultural reference to probe. No repetition – especially in “live” theater – is ever exactly the same; it always intertwines sameness with difference. This is part of the pleasure of repetitive theatergoing for me. Instead of opening out into an empty refrain, repetition accumulates meaning in densely sedimented layers. The texts that we obsess over could be good measures of our own desires for sameness and difference, for familiarity and change, for stability and dynamic range in life.

This is also the function of theater reviewing for me. Writing is a form of repeating my experience at the theater, engaging in that cultural bond in its ever-shifting contexts. The moment I press “Publish,” it looks like I have a stable opinion on a piece. But this is far from true – and it’s actually one of the beauties of a theater blog. You might be getting articles on CYCLOPS for months to come from me. Especially as CYCLOPS has undergone revisions for the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse – and as they anticipate future revisions for a summer remount – my own thoughts on the show keep developing. For the past few weeks, I have been mentally processing an article on mythological musical threats to the social order. Maybe a little Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors alongside CYCLOPS? Time will tell.

In my own idealistic world, fandom and criticism are not mutually exclusive. I should unapologetically embrace the fact that I am an obsessive, repetitive theatergoer with a keen critical eye – and my critical eye isn’t necessarily blinded by repeat viewings. Instead, each repetition ripples out into a host of new conversations. Theater is, after all, a mode of relation. Let’s keep up the dialogue.