Live theater is good medicine: a year at the Guthrie


Another “brainy time” activity: trying new games at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Social Science event in July

This week, as I wrap up my first year of season tickets to the Guthrie Theater, I find myself addicted to the music from new Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” It plays in my car and from my iPod during my short runs lately, and earworms from the musical fill various filler pockets (i.e. waiting for coffee to brew, walking the long halls at work) of my days with new vigor and/or brief meditations on history and human nature.

I have not seen this musical.

About a month ago, a friend excitedly confessed to me and several other friends at a dinner party that her 11-year old daughter knows the play and music by heart: it’s on constant play in their family car. And yet no one in the family had been to New York to see the play. I was amazed and impressed: how can you be so enthusiastic about a play that you’ve never seen, even as a movie? In the mid-1990’s I scored a ticket to Rent when it came through the Twin Cities, and right after I saw it I bought the CD set and listened to it constantly for a few weeks. I definitely understand seeing a production and then wanting to listen to the music more.


Enjoying the Guthrie’s Endless Bridge with Ben

Curious, and impressed with the 11-year-old’s passion, I purchased the soundtrack and have been listening to it ever since. I love the music, and I love that the music and story make me want to think about some challenging and timely topics. That’s what the arts can do.

In these days of Netflix queues, Instagram feeds, heated discussions in Facebook, a long drive commute that desperately needs a less-than-fully absorbing audiobook or podcast, and efforts to reduce “blue-light” time right before bed, I had slid into nearly forgetting about this capability of he arts. The movies and shows I’ve been watching at home have covered more comfortable topics and/or served up tougher topics in easier bites or flavors.

One of those aforementioned drive time podcasts touched upon this topic as well: a few weeks ago, I listened to Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” podcast interview of actor Viggo Mortensen. At one point Mr. Mortensen said something that reminded me of what I used to love about theater (live or on film):

“I love characters that take you on a journey, and I love movies that … really make you think ‘I’m doing it wrong as a dad or just as a human being … I’ve got to call my mom right away or talk to my children to make up for the thing I did…’ Movies that make you doubt everything, make you wake up and thing think, everything I’ve done is wrong’…  “.

It may be a meandering way to put “movies can shake you out of your modern-life stupor,” but it was helpful to hear an artist from a favorite medium say this. A story well-told can bring relevance.

Back to the frame-up of this story: The season ticket was for one – just me, though for two plays I was able to buy an additional ticket, as I had a husband and then a friend who were interested in seeing particular shows with me. Just one ticket for all nine sounds a little odd, but it’s more affordable than two and I was a lot more interested in that volume of theater than Steve was.

Nine shows is a lot! One or two local live theater shows, in addition to several live music performances per year fit into our rhythm, in previous years. I think we’d go more often to live theater if deciding which shows to attend, and when, were a little easier: this is one disadvantage of living in a community so full of theater – though the real explanation has two parts:

a) this community is full of things with which to fill our weeknight and weekends. In the last several years, for me that has included several sports activities (running, skiing, climbing, walking, more biking this summer, and to a degree, my yoga), and my balance seemed off, in terms of brainy time versus body time. Opting for a show on nine various Wednesday evenings was a way to tip the balance more toward the mind.

And b) while I’ve enjoyed some shows more than others, any night at the Guthrie is a good night. Most often it’s because of the beautiful, imaginative sets and talented performers and staff. It’s also true for me that the theater-going ritual has a comfort and appeal, especially when it’s a rare occasion as it brings to mind shows I attended as a kid with my family, in Tacoma and Seattle.

When decision time came, I felt I could trust the artistic directors (the prior AD had just departed when the schedule was announced) to select and oversee a mix of plays that would keep me engaged and enthusiastic enough to see value in my time and cash commitment.
The plays I saw were:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted by Christopher Serge
  • The Events, by David Greig
  • The Cocoanuts, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
  • Pericles, by William Shakespeare
  • The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and The Critic, by Richard Sheridan (two shorter plays performed on the same evening)
  • Harvey, by Mary Chase -Steve joined me for this one
  • Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress
  • Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar -I wish everyone I know would go see this
  • South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II -Kristin, from a very musically gifted and experienced family, came to this with me

So, a mix of stories old and new, performances musical and less musical, and formats both traditional and unorthodox. Some nods to other art forms (literature and film), one beloved Shakespeare (I was a college English major and they are all beloved), a palliative dose of comedy here and there, a show by an out-of-town company that managed to get several local choirs involved (see my Instagram post below, which shows the program cover) and in all of them, something serious to think about. It was often related to race, but so much more often, hurdles and scenarios involving compassion and diversity pervaded my thoughts, during and after the ticketed evening.

My investment delivered: I have renewed interest in challenging visual stories. I also have already renewed for next year, and I have a few other people lined up to go to a few of those shows -and others, around town- with me. I’m so glad that I was able to see the full* season.

In one of my show companions, I think I’ve also created another fan of Sanctuary Restaurant, one of the nearby restaurants where I’ve supped prior to several shows. It’s just far enough away -three blocks- from the theater’s doors that we scored a seat on a crazy busy Wednesday evening, last week.

The service, every evening, and everything I’ve ordered there was top-notch, including the halibut last week, with a great glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Kristin had the pasta special, with a crisp Crispin cider. On other visits I’ve sampled the inventive cocktails (see above) and the desserts: the tres leches cake was worth going back for again, and I did go back for it.

*Season tickets did not include the annual Guthrie “A Christmas Carol” production, and I was glad. There are limits to my reaching beyond my comfort level: that’s not a play I’ve ever much liked.