A couple of weeks ago I ventured out for the first time in over a year to enjoy some live entertainment. With New York slowly opening up after more than thirteen months of house arrest, I was fortunate enough to have a friend’s new one act drama to go see. Returning readers will recognize Robert Liebowitz‘s name, as I’ve posted about him before. Rob has been writing and directing his own work for longer than we know each other (over thirty years) and I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of it. There was something fitting about breaking the artistic fast by taking in a play written by a close friend. Staged at the Theater for the New City, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Old Normal was the dramatic half of a mixed arts show running under the title of The Non-Essentials. The evening began with an interpretive dance, working through the five stages of grief. It must have been really good because I don’t usually have much appreciation for the genre and I still found myself captivated by the emotional content of choreographer Albena Kervanbashieva‘s solo performance. A brief intermission and then Robert’s accounting of one man’s passing during the pandemic. Using the recurrent metaphor of a casual bike ride, Liebowitz takes the audience through the closing moments of an older, but not elderly, man’s life. The subtlety of the writing allows the viewer to see the direction of the narrative without being certain of exactly where in the series of vignettes the action shifts from serendipitous happenstance to the increasingly fevered dreams of someone in the terminal throes of COVID-19. I’d be afraid of spoiling the show but the experience brushes against the sublime not in some grand revelation at it’s end, but in that impossible to define turn that I just referred to.
After the curtain I was able to spend a few minutes with Rob. We took a moments pleasure in actually seeing each other for the first time in over a year and then spent ten minutes or so talking about the play. He was pleased with the performance and the response of the theater’s artistic director, who’d been impressed with both the artistic output and the professionalism of the cast and crew. I wasn’t surprised, as I’d had the opportunity to read a draft before the show was cast and thought it really worked well. What was a bit unexpected was the poor turnout. The play was staged in a one hundred seat room, running at a COVID limit of thirty-three percent. The evening I was there I sat with seven other people. I’d expected something more along the lines of the full houses that Rob had reported for the first week of the run. Fortunately the remainder of the performances had a better showing , but I don’t know that they ever filled up again. In the ensuing days I’ve thought about this as it reflects on what I see as a contemporary societal deficit and a possible opportunity to embrace what has previously been the more adventurous behavior of those who crossed over from casual consumer to committed enthusiast in regard to an appreciation of the arts. I’m advocating here for those with a professed interest in culture to be willing to try an off-brand experience instead of always chasing after the shiniest penny.
For over a year I’ve listened to endless whining about the loss we’ve suffered as a result of this pandemic. Freedom’s curtailed, simple joys denied; a pervasive ennui resulting from the absence of the things that made our lives more than just the tautology of sleep, wake, work, repeat. Yet when I told people I worked with that I was going to see a friend’s play, the general response could best be summed up as “that’s nice, I’ll wait till the real theaters open up in the fall.” It isn’t just the stage. When I’m asked about my favorite live music moments I often received looks of genuine confusion as I relate a story of a night spent listening to Cold Sweat, the group that played my wedding. The one time house band at Arthur’s Tavern, a Greenwich Village bar, those guys were extraordinary musicians. While not completely anonymous (their combined professional resumes include stints with Mary J. Blige, Kool and the Gang, and The Average White Band), none of them ever was or would be a household name. And that was enough to invalidate their skills more often than not. If you’re wondering whether or not the same trend holds true for writers of absolutely no pedigree, I can assure you it does. Aside from the irritating hypocrisy on display, there’s a foolishness to this sort of snobbery that does a real disservice to those engaging in it.
As a country, we have developed an extremely efficient system to identify and nurture high end athletic talent. When your watching an elite sporting event, you can be confident that you’re seeing the best contestants available. Certainly, it’s possible that a random case or two exists in which someone with the innate gifts to compete at the highest level might have slipped under the radar and is busy toiling away in obscurity at an unrelated occupation, but if you sit down to watch a baseball game this evening there is not a chance in the world that checking out the action at a local park is going to reveal a product that is within lightyears of even the two worst teams that the major leagues have to offer. In sports the imprimatur of professional status is truly a guarantee of a level of quality. The outcomes are objectively measurable, and the distance between the top players and the quality of most of the hopefuls at just one level down is large enough to make the gap obvious to even somewhat casual observers. That does not hold true in the world artistic endeavors. By it’s very nature the sort of beauty that we’re hoping to find in other’s expressions, movements and creations is very much in the eye of the beholder. There are times when this can be incredibly frustrating. We’ve all looked at some popular act and had zero understanding of the appeal. There has probably never been a public speaker persuasive enough to convince me that The Bay City Rollers left the musical world a better place than they found it. Much in the same way, there are moments when we are sure we’ve discovered some extraordinary talent, only to realize most of the world has missed the memo. I still remember being utterly floored by Jaimz Woolvett in Unforgiven, and although he didn’t vanish after that film, he didn’t become the “star” character actor I was certain he would be.
There is an upside to the exasperating random distribution of quality I just referred to. The inability of the artistic world’s decision makers to recognize all of the best available talent means that at any given moment a fair number of absolutely fantastic creators and performers can be found plying their trades in less than optimal circumstances. That stinks for them but it is potentially good news for someone hoping to be entertained at a high level and working on a budget. If you’re willing to set aside a pretentious need for name recognition and simply take a chance on trying something new, an otherwise hidden gem may make itself known to you. As I write these words there are countless examples of that sort of “anonymous” theater, music, comedy, etc. happening all around us. Instead of taking advantage of this we complain that there’s nothing to do or see; nowhere to go. A parade passes us by and we look right through it, thinking it can’t matter because we don’t already know who’s in it or what it sounds like. Living only in the familiar is safe. It’s rare that what we already know will be a crushing disappointment. But it makes it impossible to be swept away in the wonder of discovery, and the joy that is the reward on occasion, for taking a risk.
On an unrelated note, my play, Six Feet, Ninety-nine Days should be opening at The Theater For the New City in early September. See you then.