In conversation, performing artists of every stripe keep telling us how vital a role we play as spectators. But how rarely they let us know whether we have played our roles well or badly? When they do, it may be worth connecting the dots.
The first time this spectator got panned was at the Edinburgh Festival, in 1971, on the second night of the Young Vic's site-specific production of the young Shakespeare's lollapalooza The Comedy of Errors, with its twin masters and their twin slaves whipping all Ephesus into pandemonium.
Seldom have I been more keyed up for a show. A few months earlier, the company had parachuted in to Zurich, where I lived at the time, for their first foreign engagement, a two-show run of The Taming of the Shrew. Blown away on opening night, I returned twenty-four hours later to watch again from a tiny bleachers section right up there on the stage, under the hot lights.
Bashful as I was then, I brought flowers. Jim Dale — a Petruchio for the ages, future toast of Broadway and lone voice of the yet-undreamed-of Harry Potter audiobooks — swept me up to the footlights for the curtain calls, kissed me on both cheeks and shepherded me to the cast party, where all the actors were buzzing about their upcoming trip to Edinburgh.
"You've got to come!" the visitors insisted, adopting me as their mascot. What an adventure it would be! Never having traveled to an international festival on my own recognizance before, I attended the opening night in Edinburgh in what could only be called an altered state.
I felt a special pang for the oddball comedienne Denise Coffey as the forlorn scold Adriana, whose husband has been dining with a courtesan. Serves you right, a Reverend Mother unjustly opines in the whirling finale. "The venom clamors of a jealous woman," the dressing-down begins, "Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth." It gets worse.
"That abbess!" I piped up at the cast party. "God, I wanted to shout 'Shut up!'" (I quote from memory.)
"Oh, I wish you had!" Denise cried, bubbling over with mischief. "You're coming back tomorrow, aren't you? Do it! I mean it! You have to."
What choice did I have?
It could have worked, I guess. The unsuspecting abbess, whose name I seem to have repressed, had the presence of mind to end the stunned silence I caused by thrusting her crucifix at me.
"But you said to," I pleaded with Denise after the second show.
"Your timing was off," Denise answered, playing the proverbial Dutch uncle, though friend enough not to wash her hands of me. "Nobody understood what was happening. You scared everybody."
Quel fiasco. And it wasn't as if I hadn't known better. Like most tots of my generation privileged to be taken to live theater, I was taught to watch and listen in Trappist silence. In adolescence, I learned by the example of grown-ups around me that it was okay to laugh (even uproariously) at jokes and gags or to cry (softly, please) when something broke your heart. You could exchange knowing glances with family and friends, and if you were really stealthy, a whispered comment in their ears might not rock the boat. But horn in on the show? Ad-lib from the house? Not on your life.
That night in Edinburgh, I carved those principles in stone, never to question them again.
But never is a long time. Fast-forward to 2007. At Café Carlyle, Eartha Kitt — ageless sphinx sheathed in ruby velvet slashed to the thigh — was stalking her latest patsy billionaire. A friend had canceled at the last moment, leaving me solo at a ringside table for two.
Kitt's song list that night ran mostly to hits she had recorded in the mid-twentieth century — uncharted seas for me, full of fabulous discoveries. For sensual rapture, there was "Lilac Wine," an instant addiction, tinged with self-reproach; for burlesque, "Just an Old-Fashioned Girl," its brazen lyrics as priceless as the wicked Handelian arrangement. I was putty in Kitt's hands.
She knew it and chose to prove it. A familiar standard was winding down when her spotlight stole over my shoulder like Circe's cape.
Dream a while, scheme a while
We're sure to find
Happiness and I guess
All those things you've always
Till that lucky day you know
darned well, baby.
I can't give you anything but …
"Love," I whispered.And here she waited, ensnaring me in her cobra gaze. The last chord seemed to fade forever. No, she was not going to let me off the hook. And so I took my cue.
"Thank you," Kitt purred.
As I left the room, that cobra gaze transfixed me once again. "That was perfect," Kitt said, interrupting a chat with visiting Broadway royalty. "What beautiful timing."
Redemption? Take the bad notices to heart, and someday a gold star may be yours to keep, too.