Fiction, Monologues, Plays & More
By Taylor Ashbrook
I had an epiphany recently. A ridiculous, splendid epiphany. I realized that Theater has been the single most influential element of my life. My parents were Theater and taught me and my siblings Theater. My life partner of thirty-five or so years is Theater. We are all “show people” – or, as I like to say, “Theater Geeks.”
Theater has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I was in my first play when I was six, but I’d seen my parents in plays for years before that. I lost my two front baby teeth in a theater. Most of my friendships have been found through Theater. In some cases, my few non-Theater friends ended up sharing Theater experiences with me, too. I broke up with a great boyfriend, the best I’d ever had at that point, because he wanted me to prioritize Christmas over Theater.
But this recent thing, this new epiphany, made me realize how much Theater has informed my perspective on life and living in the world. My values. My dreams.
Okay. Duh! No surprise there, if you know me. And I do know me. But you know what it’s like when you suddenly-realize-something-you-actually-knew-all-along, right?
Shortly after that moment of clarity, I watched this year’s Tony Awards show (if you don’t know, think Oscars for Broadway). Not only was I moved by the work I saw (I’m dying to see all those shows), but I was moved and impressed by the acceptance speeches. It’s not the same as the Oscars somehow. It’s realer. Grittier. Humbler. And yet just as elegant and inspiring. So beautiful. So moving. I mean, this year? Ben Platt, anyone? But more on him later.
I had another post almost finished for this spot, but I was inspired to shift gears, and here I am. I’m going to share why Theater is the best thing that ever happened to me. Why I wish it could happen to everyone.
Life is a series of epiphanies, don’t you think? This time I was struck while writing another blog post altogether. I started out with a vague idea about positive thinking. I ended up writing about how the musical The Man of La Mancha inspires me to believe in the Impossible Dream we call the American Dream. Seriously. I wrote it for my as yet un-launched blog. If you want to read it, click here.
Warning: much of the site is still under construction, although I have already started my blogging practice. Anyway, if you want to read that article, feel free.
But the point is, I’m not talking about my personal goals and dreams (sure, there was a time I dreamed of winning a Tony). I’m talking about big life issues. I’m talking about dreams of equality for all, understanding for the different, enrichment via arts and letters, the value of books and music and dance and entertainment. I dream for the world, not just myself. I am connected to the whole world because of Theater, even though I have seen very little of the world in person.
I believe that’s due to the fact that words are, usually, the primary element in a play. Film uses words, but images are it’s primary form of communication. TV, it’s more about the characters. Those mediums are powerful, too, often in many of the same ways. But in film and TV, you end up with famous quotes like, “I’ll be back,” and “You had me at hello,” and “You can’t handle the truth,” and “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” Fun. Easy to remember. Nothing but fluff.
In Theater, there are quotes from plays that are centuries old that are part of modern culture. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” “This above all: to thine own self, be true.” “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And they really mean something!
And there are quotes like the following, from more modern plays, that mean so much:
“The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal.” – Peter Shaffer
“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die… Life is how the time goes by.” – Fred Ebb
“As I ramble through life, whatever be my goal, I will unfortunately always keep my eye upon the doughnut and not upon the whole.” – Wendy Wasserstein
Although the words can resonate beyond a performance, the impact of Theater is no doubt a combination of many factors. I sometimes wonder if part of it isn’t sitting in the dark with strangers watching human beings in bright light create in front of our eyes. A shared experience that bonds us. And since we do not know these strangers, anyone we meet on the street could be a familiar in some weird way, could be someone that shared a profound experience.
Of course, the same experience can be shared in an amphitheater in broad daylight.
And think about the instant connection you can feel with a stranger who saw the same play and had the same reaction, even though they saw a different performance, maybe even a different production, maybe even years apart… Sounds a little dramatic. A little magical. But it’s like that for me.
I won’t even try to explain what it’s like on the other side of fourth wall, under those bright lights pointed away from the audience. Creating a mystical communion from the light to the dark, a combination of intense preparation and each specific moment lived with your fellow actors on the stage. That’s a bonding with strangers that erases the strange and just leaves perfectly imperfect humans, artists, in your life. That’s more than magical. It’s miraculous. But, hey, I’m partial to show people.
Sure, yes, books also use words to create impact, arguably even more so than Theater, but those added elements found in the theater arts have a significant impact. A communal impact that is not the same with books, in my opinion. (Still very valid and important. I love books! I’d say they come in a very close second in terms of impact on my life and the person I am. They’re just not what this article is about. Please don’t think I’d ever be hatin’ on books!)
Plays give us the gift of seeing things from a character’s point of view and, usually, the words to help define and describe those different perspectives. As an actor/writer/director, I’ve done my best to understand characters that are very different from me, sometimes characters I haven’t liked much, even hated. How can you try to inhabit the skin, figuratively (God, not literally – yuck!), of a different human if you have no empathy for that person? You have to find a way to understand them. It’s such a gift.
And the audience is, in the best circumstances, given insight by the words and the emotion expressed by the actor and the production overall. Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy contemplating suicide is a beautiful piece of writing and stands on its own as words alone. But imagine a melancholy young man, dressed in rich black velvet, isolated in a beam of light piercing the darkness of his soul… And with a masterful actor performing, that speech can rock your world.
The theatricality allows for dramatic effect. It would be near impossible to say some of the things said in plays in real life. At least, the way they are said. Humans aren’t usually that eloquent in their emotional moments. And philosophy shares some of that drama, that theatricality, that profundity.
I was nine years old when I first saw The Man of La Mancha. I don’t remember when I first consciously heard the “life as it is” speech (again, discussed at length in last week’s post), but I had it memorized and was reciting it in public by the time I was twelve.
“… And maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”
Where else but Theater would a Southern California suburban kid like me be presented with so much rich material for philosophical contemplation?
Okay, I’ll admit, this is still an ongoing process. But knowing I’m part of the Theater tribe, even when I’m not actively involved in Theater, helps me feel that I have a place in the world.
I remember one night, so late it was actually morning, seeing myself in a video of a live stage comedy performance earlier that evening. It was out there. Threw me to see myself so freakish. And it brought me to tears realizing that my fellow actors loved me in spite of what a freak I was. (Okay, I might have been a little drunk, but it was a vivid emotional reaction that I discussed with a couple people. And something I will never forget.)
You know, the Tonys always move me. I feel like there is more acceptance regardless of class in Theater. Most every actor on Broadway is good friends with someone who never gets the job, who keeps working for nothing, continues to love Theater in spite of a lack of commercial or critical success. Often those people are good. And any audition could mean the splash, the big payoff.
But, of course, the opposite can also be true in Theater. A Tony winner can be out of work the year after winning. The crap shoot, the gamble, has been assuaged somewhat by the money to be made working in film and television as well. But if it’s only Theater, working on Broadway comes and goes. The rest of the time, it can be anything from an amphitheater to a storefront. It can be a national tour or a run of four performances only in a low rent regional festival. Humbling and exhilarating. And equalizing. To a larger extent than in other areas of the arts. At least, from my lowly perspective.
Or maybe it’s just that I feel I have something to offer when it comes to Theater, that I have an opinion of value, that I could hold my own in a conversation. Because I share the passion, the love, the sense of belonging. And no one would suggest I’m part of theater’s elite.
I remember hearing Laura Linney say she would have been happy running lights or something if the acting thing hadn’t worked out. She just had to work in Theater, with Theater people.
I also know that my greatest pride comes from Theater-related experiences and accomplishments. Doing free Shakespeare in a small park for children and their caretakers, watching the children become enraptured. Being there when a young woman saw a play for the first time at a small Theater festival and fell in love. Taking her to see Wicked for a taste of the opposite end of the spectrum. Making people laugh, oh, how I’ve loved making people laugh. Making people cry, moving them with my performance, writing, directing. Helping actors find more and more in their performances. Working with writers to develop their work. Producing opportunities for Theater Geeks to learn and grow and experience their passion.
I won’t lie: I wish I’d made more money doing all of those things. But they are still the proudest accomplishments of my life and define who I am, whether I like it or not. Happily, I pretty much like it.
I’m surprised how often I am moved by the acceptance speeches at the Tony Awards – in a way I rarely am by Oscar speeches. A couple years ago, Tracy Letts gave a call out to those of us working in storefronts. I loved him for that. I wished so much that I could have seen his winning performance on Broadway.
This year there were several. I mean it: several great acceptance speeches. The two guys who won for best music and lyrics were amazing (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Bette was wonderful. Cynthia Nixon. And several others.
But the one that really got me this year was Ben Platt. It’s hard for me to admit, but I had not heard of him before I watched the Tonys. I had vaguely heard of Dear Evan Hansen, although I don’t think I knew it was a musical. I’ve been out of Theater for a couple years now. Stopped working with the non-profit membership company I’d been busy with for the last twenty plus years. Stopped seeking out information about what’s happening on Broadway. Stopped reading plays, mostly. Stopped attending many plays (but haven’t gone completely cold turkey). So, you know, I’m focused on other things right now.
But I DVR’d the Tonys. It’s usually a good show – exceptional live performances and an update on what’s been going on while I wasn’t paying attention. And, as usual, it was great.
But all the references to Ben Platt? That was intriguing. Hearing that he’d been named as one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine, I mean, wow. Who is this kid? I haven’t seen Pitch Perfect 1 or 2. I’d seen other actors in The Book of Mormon.
His performance at the Awards was impressive, a solo number with chorus. Great voice, intense physicality. Click here to read a great, in-depth article about him in the New York Times. He’s an interesting young man.
His acceptance speech was awesome. Here’s the video, including Tina Fey’s announcement of the win:
What got me the most from his speech was this:
“… To all the young people watching at home, don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful…”
I can frankly admit that you don’t have to be young for that to be encouraging. Once again, my tribe helps me accept myself. I’ve always been a fan of strange.
Look, Theater has been my hobby, my vocation, my education, my religion, my club, my joy – it has been my family, literally, and the extended family of my choosing with few exceptions. Every person should have a chance to experience Theater – hopefully in school, while young. That’s how the tribe identifies itself. That’s the only way to find our home. Theater can only claim you through the experience.
Messages like the one from Ben Platt’s acceptance speech remind me that I am brave and valuable because of my strangeness. Our differences are our gifts to share. If we are brave enough.
There have been times when I’ve wondered what kept me doing production after production in a small storefront theater, paying for the privilege in most instances. It can seem so pointless. Screaming into a storm. It is only fun occasionally. It only feels successful momentarily. And it is all-encompassing, demanding everything you can give it, regardless of anything else happening in your life. It is exhausting and often, ultimately, disappointing.
Go figure – a friend gave me a book recently that explained it. I’ve barely started reading “The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear” by Ralph Keyes but, on page 7, I found the following:
“Getting there isn’t always pleasant. Neither is running in a marathon. Or staging a play. Or climbing a mountain. All such activities take courage. And all reward those who complete them not only with an unparalleled feeling of achievement but with a thrilling sense of adventure along the way.”
(If you’d like to learn more about the book, click here to see it on Amazon.)
It had never before occurred to me that staging a play was the only real opportunity I’ve had in my life to be brave. And Theater has been the great adventure in my otherwise rather tedious and typical suburban life.
Doing Theater gave me the identity I craved. It allowed me to develop my unusual, unique, strange, and exotic traits. It’s what has made me feel special and interesting in this lifetime. I count it a blessing even when it feels like a curse.
There was a great article recently from Bitter Gertrude. You can read it here.
She writes about the political outcry around the latest production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York. Regardless of the political bullshit today, the fact is that someone saw a play written in 1599 and performed around the world who knows how many times over the years, and it blew their mind. Now! In 2017! Unlikely they’d seen it before, or they probably would have understood how typical this particular “interpretation” is… Instead, it’s impact was immediate and enormous. Even national! (And ridiculous, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.)
Also, if you think about it, every production doing such an interpretation (you know, reflecting the current political landscape in power) has had to be extra brave. How often has Theater been brave first, I wonder?
How scary is the idea that there are some in our government today thinking that production should have been shut down?
I know some people don’t get it. They can’t understand what Theater means to the tribe. Or to the world in general. In the same way I don’t understand how people can find their tribe through classic cars or video games. Different strokes for different folks.
But I wish everyone could experience Theater in the profound way I have. It teaches so much. To dream big, acceptance of everyone including yourself, empathy, philosophical thinking, problem-solving, belonging, teamwork, community, joy, the value of hard work and creativity, belief in something greater than yourself, courage…
In his Tony acceptance speech in 2015, Tracy Letts pointed out that “We are the ones who say it to their faces…”
Especially in this day and age, how brave is that?
Then he added, “…and with that comes great responsibility…”
Here’s a clip of that speech if you’d like to watch it:
And, just because it’s beautiful, here’s a video of Ben Platt singing the song “For Forever” from Dear Evan Hansen on the Stephen Colbert show, taped prior to the Tonys. I don’t think you need any context to appreciate it.
Theater is my “For Forever”…
Taylor Ashbrook has had many jobs that never really turned into a career, often simultaneously administrating, producing, writing, directing, and/or acting in small theater in Los Angeles – which also never quite turned into a career. These days she’s re-dreaming her future, reminding herself of bucket list items that somehow never made it on the To Do List. Slowly reorganizing, downsizing, and agonizing to change old habits, she’s writing more than ever and excited to spend more time on that path. Maybe she’ll find a writing career! Focused on longer-form storytelling these days, Taylor has one solo, unproduced, full-length play under her belt (written with generous support from Eclectic Voices) which she may turn into a novel, she’s about to launch a blog, and she is experimenting with self-publishing erotica online under the pen name Kayleen Brookhurst. If you’re interested in checking that out (open-minded adults only!), you can visit Kayleen’s website here (a work-in-progress).
Taylor is also working on a new literary novelette and has numerous ideas for other genres she may pursue. Ultimately, the plan is to take this writing thing on the road, living full-time in an RV… Or renting a series of cabins near different national parks… Or moving to an island… Or…??? Mostly she’s just happy to know there are still endless possibilities for exploring the world and her creative impulses! Negotiations are in progress with the love of her life, actor Biff Wiff, and their dogs — currently the two best dogs ever, Snookie and Bopper.
When she thinks about it, Taylor really has a wonderful life.
“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” – Tom Stoppard