One of my own professors said that when he retired he was going to put on his jammies and spend the rest of his life watching Bergman on DVD. That doesn’t sound crazy to me, though I might throw in a really good library and an endless supply of crisp refrigerated pickles.
In reality—and few know this about me—my imagined life would put me at the theater most nights, and I’d rather not have to wait to do it. Back before our current financial obligations, and certainly before I switched careers to become a teacher and writer, I went to many plays and sometimes bought season tickets at theaters in Chicago, where we lived.
There are many performances I’ll never forget. Once I took a girlfriend who professed to love both the arts and me to an Athol Fugard play that I knew little about. It was in a black-box theater, and the two actors in the tale of interracial love played it nude, about five feet from where we sat. The girl I was with complained bitterly about this being her birthday present—along with the “weird food” I bought her afterward—and eventually launched her own productions without me as lead.
Mrs. Churm and I attended a staged reading of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, where we sat among the cast of ER, who were shooting in town; Julianna Margulies mistook me momentarily for fellow actor Anthony Edwards. (I knew this by the look she gave me when our eyes met.) We saw Spalding Gray perform his monologues at the old Goodman, which was in the back of the Art Institute, and his spittle landed on us in the second row.
At the Steppenwolf we felt deep sorrow when crazy-ass John Malkovich, as the Earl of Rochester, died in agony at the end of The Libertine. (In another play there—Sam Shepard’s True West?—we watched as Malkovitch pissed on the stage. “Bravo!” we cried.) On Broadway we saw Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones in Moon for the Misbegotten and didn’t even care that from our cheap, last-minute seats high in the balcony, the only thing we could see emoting was the part in his hair.
Theater is often a powerful experience, but certain productions change something in me as I watch. Once I saw David Rabe’s Streamers in the kind of theater where my feet rested on the edge of the stage. I became so involved in the play that, when an enormous volume of fake blood poured out of a man’s belly during a stage knifing, amidst shouting and strobes, I nearly passed out. At the Art Deco theater where I was an undergrad, I saw Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author staged as an opera. The actors paced the aisles, roaring their lines, and one baldheaded giant’s voice was so freakishly powerful and moving that I thought the top of my head would come off.
Last night Mrs. Churm and I roused ourselves from parental fatigue, dusted off the piggy bank, hired a babysitter for the night, and drove to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to see the AandBC Theatre Company’s production of The Tempest, directed by Gregory Thompson. It was one of the most memorable and thrilling aesthetic experiences I've ever had, and I’ll need to break up my postings to get at it. Come on back Monday, when the play's the thing.