The Creative Magic of a Darkened Theater

"Girl from the North Country" at the Belasco Theater, New YO
Girl from the North Country at the Belasco Theater, New York City

Is it un-American of me to admit that spectator sports leave me cold? Sure, I can get a contact high from my young nephews’ excitement when one of their heroes sinks a perfect 3 point shot into the basket. And I used to enjoy sitting with my father while he watched an intense rally between tennis champions. But that has more to do with being with the people I love when they’re happy. 

Intellectually, I can appreciate athletic virtuoso performances. It’s impressive how a well-trained mind can control every muscle, every fractional movement, how those powerful (and beautiful) bodies can do things I couldn’t even dream of achieving. However, for me, passively sitting on my duff, watching baseball, basketball, football or any similar game can be as boring as watching the minute hand on an analog clock ticking away the hours. I’d much rather be doing something… well, almost anything else. That applies not only to watching sports on TV, but also attending sporting events in person.

And yet, sports fans would probably be just as bored by one of my favorite pastimes: sitting quietly in a darkened concert hall or theater. The difference is that nothing within me is engaged by sports. On the other hand, a great play or fine piece of music fills my mind, awakens all my senses and sends my thoughts and emotions on unexpected journeys. In that darkness, fed by the creativity of others, ideas and words percolate out of me, often unearthing new stories, essays or poems, or generating renewed energies and alternate directions for works in progress. Or, sometimes,  my experience can be more amorphous, a germination of something unidentified within me that may not bear palpable fruit immediately, but energizes and transports me, sets my entire being abuzz.

No wonder I hunger for the darkness of the theater, and last week, I got a whopper of a fix. I attended a Broadway matinée performance of Girl from the North Country, a play by Conor McPherson, with songs by Bob Dylan. The play is almost as dark as the far balcony seats, and as luminous as a searing winter sun reflecting off a Minnesota snowscape. Set in a boarding house in Duluth, during the Great Depression, Girl is an ensemble piece of sharply defined individuals struggling (and mostly failing) to make connections. And oh, the music! Each song, jubilant or heart-rending, so familiar from decades of loving Dylan’s work, was transformed into something new and fresh by brilliant performances, staging and arrangements.

My only complaint about Girl is that it was too short, so that fascinating sub-plots and secondary characters weren’t fully resolved. I have the feeling that the final arcs of their stories were left on the proverbial cutting floor. Even so, it was a rich tapestry of life and lives that held me transfixed. By the end of the performance, my heart was full, not with hope but with the wonder of our shared humanity. Awed and somewhat overwhelmed, I was momentarily bereft; the ache to create was so intense that I felt scrubbed raw, almost empty. Then, as I re-entered the light of day, merging into the congested pedestrian traffic of Times Square, I touched that emptiness inside me, that place where new seeds were germinating. And I suddenly felt light and ready to fly.

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