Aditya Bhagirath reminisces on the last theatre performance he attended and looks for solace in A Bright Ray of Darkness.
Can you believe that it has been almost a year since most of the world was unceremoniously thrust into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Over the past 12 months, perhaps the greatest constant was the reminiscing of the Before Times: the last time I ate out in a restaurant (a pricey ramen place downtown), or the last night I spent with my friends (a pizza party in our dorms while dancing to Britney Spears). I look back on those memories fondly, as I try to focus on my open workbooks lying unread in front of me with the intention of finally getting some real studying done. No sooner have I read a few lines from my economics textbook, I already find myself thinking of another memory—the last time I was in a theatre, watching a performance with an actual, physical audience.
It was a Sunday evening night in early January 2020 when I went to watch a stripped-down adaptation of one of my favourite pieces of theatre, the musical Cabaret, put together by my university’s musical theatre club. What I most love about Cabaret is its unrelenting griminess in all aspects of its production. Watching the performance in that theatre last year, sitting in a cramped seat with my elbows knocking my neighbours’, I felt enveloped by that darkness in the best possible way—the scratched-up set design that evoked a gloomy and decadent 1930s Weimar Berlin nightclub, costumes so ratty and faded that you could feel the horrors they absorbed, and an orchestra that swallowed the audience up in its hooting horns and thrashing drums.
But what I remember most is the ensemble, particularly the actress playing the lead, Sally Bowles. I can hear the echoes of her final number in the show singing the title song, as Sally laments on her regrets and woes in a valiant attempt to fight against hopelessness. In those moments, I am completely struck by how powerful a theatre production can be. When the design, the story, and the music align with the perfect performers, you can always feel bolts of energy shoot out towards you from the stage, attaching themselves to any person in sight. The next thing you know, the entire audience is connected under the same spell, forever bound by being witness to the unabashed rawness of emotion that can only be produced on the stage.
I come out of this reverie and wonder why I would have suddenly thought of that memory out of nowhere, but it is only a matter of seconds before I notice one particular book lying in front of me, and find my question answered. It is Ethan Hawke’s A Bright Ray of Darkness, a book whose every page I savoured. It’s clear to me in this moment that Hawke’s feverish prose, which adroitly and humorously interrogates the psyche of an actor acting in a Broadway production of Henry IV while juggling numerous personal crises, is the reason that I am reminded of the power of the stage, as it fervently reminded me of how visceral an experience watching art be made can be. I pray I feel it again soon, in a dark, crowded theatre on a creaky seat with no leg-room.
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