St. Paul, Minn. — I was in the theater Monday night, which was unusual for a couple reasons. First, Monday is the traditional dark night, allowing theater people at least one consistent evening off a week. But second—and more important—Monday was one of those gotta-go nights—my nephew, a high schooler, was appearing at the Bryant Lake Bowl, one of the hipster theaters in Minneapolis.
This, I know, is precursor to what many nights in my future will be like. I have little kids of my own, and it won't be long before I have a whole new slate of concerts and plays and what-have-yous to attend. But, see, what I get paid to do for a living is to see stuff like this and offer up my sometimes-painful opinions of it.
I know what you're thinking: Easy enough to screw a smile on your face and suck it up for the evening, right? And this was certainly my intention. But professional habits die hard. So, around the dinner table at Easter, I quizzed my sister Nancy on the precise nature of the production and discovered this was a showcase of a couple dozen students of a particular voice teacher. And the theme of the evening was adolescents singing about adolescence.
I masked my groan as a request for more cheesy potato hotdish. I mean, I was delighted to go support my nephew, who is a great and talented kid. But this show—well, let's just say I had my doubts about the thematic arc of the evening. Still, the die was cast.
And so, down we went to the Bryant Lake Bowl, which was a full as I'd ever seen it. Clearly, Collin's voice teacher at least knew the rudimentary rules of audience development. 25 cast members, multiplied by X number of parents and siblings equals a string of sellouts in a 90-seat theatre. The show started…and I was surprised.
Just as the average skill level of high school athletics has grown exponentially in the 20 years since I was there, so too has the level of high school musical theater. In the main, these kids were poised, they sang well, they had good stage presence and, with the unfortunate exception of a snippet of Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" sung as a ballad, their teacher had chosen the material well.
And sitting there, watching pretty girls sing about wishing they were pretty, I swallowed my professional smugness and I realized something. These kids were falling in love with theater the same way I did—by doing it.
There's a thrill in making good art—an adrenaline rush, a terror, a sense of pride. It's addicting. You can catch that thrill vicariously, as an audience member or as a critic. But only if you've had the original experience a few times. And these kids were getting that experience. You could almost see the breathlessness in their eyes. And, though I see a lot of great theater, I hardly ever see that breathlessness anymore.
After the show, we congratulated Collin, packed the entourage up and headed home. No one asked me my opinion of the show, no doubt exercising what they thought was the better part of valor. But I kind of wished they had: This show would have gotten a good review.