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Sunday, October 26, 2008

BLACK WATCH and P.S. 156

A couple of nights ago; my wife (Donna), brother (Peter), and I saw BLACK WATCH. This production of the National Theatre of Scotland is paying a highly praised second visit to St. Ann’s Warehouse in the delightfully named Dumbo district of NYC (for you non-Knickerbockers: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

To me, every show is site-specific. The smell and look of the theatre (and sometimes, even the bathrooms) have impact on the appreciation of the show. Moreover, every show is time-specific. Let’s face it: if Ben Brantley has a good day, it’s gotta make him more relaxed and probably more available to a show.

Well, we had a spectacular day. Here’s the backdrop:

Our mother, Ada, died about six months ago. She’d spent 30 of her 40 year career as a kindergarten teacher in P.S. 156 (Laurelton, Queens).

To commemorate her life and life-work by making a family donation to beloved 156, Pete contacted the magnificent Noreen Little – that school’s generous and wildly competent principal. She was so grateful for our gesture that she suggested that we donate to the library, which would then be re-named The Ada P. Robinson Library. We were delighted.

We agreed to present the check (and the identifying plaque) at 11 AM this last Wednesday. This took some arranging, ‘cause Pete lives in California.

We park our rental car (Donna and I don’t own a gas burner and are so green we’re almost chartreuse) and scurry to the school on this first day that really feels like New York autumn. On the door’s a sign advertising the ceremony to name The Ada Robinson Library!

Pete, Donna, and I thought this would be a meaningful handshake and a sweet “adios.” We meet the remarkably warm Ms. Little, who offers the first of legion “thank-yous” we would gratefully receive this glorious afternoon.

It was amazing to be back at P.S. 156. In that Ada had taught there for many years, Pete and I had spent a fair time in these ancient corridors. The building is even older, of course; but it looked clean, neat, and festive.

We were escorted into the auditorium. To our shock, the place was soon filled with row-after-row of attentive and orderly elementary school kids.

We were handed a lovely little program chronicling what was to come. Again, we were astounded. The program listed skits, songs, and presentations that we were going to enjoy in the next hour.

The show began with Ms. Little addressing the assembly. This brilliant educator clearly had folded our donation into an educational event! Next came a kindergarten teacher now at 156 had been one of Ada’s kids! She spoke about Ada as inspiration and teacher.

Still another of Ada’s kids is teaching at 156. She also recalled how gentle and nurturing Ada was to her.

Then: the meat of the event. The children enacted skits that foreshadowed the use to which they’ll put the new library, that extolled their favorite books; they recited wonderful poems about teachers and about our mother’s dedication; finally, they sang WIND BENEATH MY WINGS.

That was it. Donna started to cry. (My Aunt Temi, Ada’s sister; Andrea, Temi’s daughter; and Karin, Ada’s very close cousin – sitting next to her stalwart and sensitive husband, David - also broke into tears.) Caught up in all this emotion (or maybe reminded about a loss she’s felt), one of the little girls singing onstage also started to cry. It was an amazing moment.

Afterwards: we went up to the library; cut the ribbon; and had some delicious food, meaningful talk, and meaningless fun. The gratitude for our donation was palpable and warming and wonderful. I want to do this kind of thing all-the-time. Peter, Donna, and I agree: it was one of the greatest days of our lives.

It’s in this context that later that day we drove down to Dumbo to see BLACK WATCH. THIS IS NOT A REVIEW!!!!!

Not exactly. I don’t want to use this site to flaunt my superior taste or dismiss inferior artists. There are plenty of outlets for such exercise, should you choose to flex that lesser muscle. I want to use what I see and what I blog to help define my idea of that nonexistent entity – the ideal theatre.

For fear that I’ll leave the wrong impression, let me say that I was very happy to be in the room. I got sufficient bang for my buck. There were at least 10 or 12 superbly theatrical moments.

This had to be a theatre piece. And this reminded me that this should be a central question a writer must ask himself when choosing something to dramatize: why could this be a theatrical event and nothing else?

I won’t spoil any of the wonderful surprises that await future audiences. There were images and moments that I’ll remember until senility or death.

Still, the three of us agreed: we were very happy that we were there, but we were oddly unmoved. All three of us lauded the stage-craft and the value of the piece. We all even felt that the play had given us more than a taste of what it must be like to be in Iraq.

As we left the lobby of St. Ann’s, the crowd simply wasn’t vibrating with the passion and joy that follows “true-theatre” ecstasy. Everyone look engaged, alert, and satisfied. That’s okay. And it was.

The three of us agreed that what separated us from true engagement with the characters was that they were general. They were genial, coarse, and human. I just didn’t know their insides. Souls. Drive. Passion. Secrets. I was unable to climb into their skins – to feel their hearts. Stanislavski – always clever – was right: “generality is the enemy of art.’

The truest theatre for me that day was on the stage of P.S. 156. I was able to look into the eyes of that little girl crying to WIND BENEATH MY WINGS. I felt how high the stakes were for her. I felt her need. I could look through her eyes. We shared.

Theatre is where you find it.

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