I’m on the subway on a local train. It’s Saturday night and even though I’ve just left Times Square, the train isn’t crowded. I spot an express train across the platform and consider switching, to save some time, but decide it’s not worth it.
It’s my third night of theater in a week, my second in a row, and I keep thinking about the shows I’ve seen. I’m listening to the Broadway cast recording of “Into the Woods” to drown out the teenagers – or maybe they’re college students – talking at each other at the other end of the car. But I saw the movie last week, and I’m seeing the stage show soon, and it fits in with the where my thoughts about the other shows are going.
“The Real Thing”, which closed this weekend and starred Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Cynthia Nixon, is a Tom Stoppard play about a playwright and his complicated relationships. It had me thinking about writing, and storytelling, and the way we talk to one another. If we rehearse something we want to say, or write it down, before we tell it to someone, does that make it less genuine? If words are polished instead of spontaneous, what does that do to their meaning? And what about the stories we tell about our lives? When I’ve told a story so many times that it has its own rhythm when I tell it, does that make it more real or less real? Does a story lose truth when it’s been shaped, or does it gain it?
“Side Show”, which also closed this weekend, is a musical based on a true story about conjoined twins. But it takes liberties with their history, and within the show there are stories shaped around the characters that aren’t always true, stories shaped to achieve certain goals, from freedom from abuse to entertainment and profit. Even though the story isn’t all true, there’s truth there – isn’t there? Even though it’s been molded and retold to provoke a reaction from the audience, the heart is still there – and if some of the themes in “The Real Thing” are to be believed, the shaping of it might be what reveals its truth.
I don’t want to give too much away about “The River”, starring Hugh Jackman, since you can (and should!) go see this well done, thoughtful play before it closes on February 8. Knowing too much about it might spoil it. But I will say it’s about the parts of ourselves we choose to share with others, and the patterns we find ourselves in. How do our histories and baggage impact our present relationships? If we tell someone something about ourselves, something true and special, is it diminished by having been shared with someone else?
“Into the Woods” is about stories too – it takes familiar fairy tale sand subverts them, going beyond the happily ever afters for a glimpse of what happens next. We tell stories to make sense of what happened, to remember and understand – that’s why the Baker’s Wife says that the Baker must tell their son the story of how it all happened. But I think one of the (many) messages of “Into the Woods” is that our stories don’t really have endings. Until you’re killed by a giant, there’s always an after ahead of you.
I’ve talked about stories on this blog before, and it’s obviously a lens through which I view life and theater. This blog itself is made up of stories of mine, some better told than others. Often they’re condensed, refined – I don’t put the raw cut of my life or experiences on display here. Does the fact that they’re polished versions of my life, neatened up around the edges and given a beginning and an end, make them less true? Or is that just what has to happen when you write something down? Writing gives stories a different life and form – maybe it doesn’t have to be a question of better or worse. Maybe it’s just a question of getting the story told.
And of course, all of these pieces of theater which I’ve talked about were themselves shaped, each word carefully chosen and expertly crafted to present the writer’s vision. But “The Real Thing” and “Side Show” and “The River”, and when I see it in a few weeks, “Into the Woods”, are all live theater productions where the interpretation of the writer’s words is found in the dialogue between how the actors choose to live the writer’s words and the impact their actions have on the audience.
I’m not on the subway anymore. I sit on my couch, typing up what I wrote the other night by hand, tweaking and adding and shaping it until it says what I want it to. The thing about spontaneity is that it’s easy to get it wrong the first time, to say something that you don’t actually mean, or forget to say something you desperately wanted to. Once you capture your thoughts in words on a page, it’s up to the reader – or the audience – to decide what you meant. You’ve done your best – now sit back and be ready to be misinterpreted.