While we may all review theater in New York City now, many of us came from somewhere else. Theater fans find their way to the stage whether they are born in small towns or big cities. For these Exeunt critics, these are the institutions that informed their early theatergoing years:
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London
My family had an annual tradition of going to the Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Summer was not complete without an outing to this theater. My introduction to Shakespeare but also “proper” theater – that is not kids shows or school productions – happened out of doors. I saw most of Shakespeare’s comedies there and even a memorable Henry V. But it was for me Twelfth Night that really came alive there as the garden atmosphere seemed perfect for Malvolio’s attempted seduction of Viola in – a garden.
The cool London summers meant it was wise to take a blanket and an umbrella to be safe. That fresh air setting made it feel as though you had happened on a group of fairies in the woods, or some amateur actors dressed as a wall. During the early years, the seats at the front were old fashioned folding deck chairs adding to the feeling of improvisation. It was there under the trees waving in the breeze and the stars that I came to love the magic of theater. (Juliet Hindell)
I grew up on the Jersey Shore, where a tradition of honest-to-goodness summer stock theater continues to this day. That tradition formed by first exposure to live performance at Surflight Theatre in my hometown of Beach Haven, New Jersey. I fell in love with theater sitting in a stuffy little auditorium a block behind the beach and watching actors not much older than me play everything from Mame to City of Angels to The Gin Game.
Surflight was founded in 1950 and spent its first two seasons performing in a tent, according to a helpful timeline on its website. My dad has told me stories of seeing shows there in the late 1950s, by which time it had moved into a former body shop. When it rained, the sound of precipitation splattering against the tin roof drowned out the actors. Things were a bit more polished by the time I came of age in the mid-to-late nineties, but the actors still rehearsed one show during the day while performing another show at night all summer. Grease would close on Sunday night, and the same company of actors would open Show Boat two days later. Watching the same actress who played Rizzo return as the Old Lady on the Levee taught me a lesson in suspension of disbelief.
On a personal note, Surflight is also the site of my only professional acting gig. When I was in sixth grade, I played one of the Cratchit kids in a holiday adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The experience taught me right away that I was meant to be on the audience side of the footlights, as I quickly grew to despise the repetition of performing the same material night after night.
Still, I’m grateful for that experience, and all the other wonderful lessons I learned at Surflight. The theater has had a rocky decade, including the deposition of its artistic director, a brush with bankruptcy, and the eventual reopening and reinstatement of its former leader. I confess I haven’t been to see a show there in quite some time. But every time I pass by the theater on a visit home to my family, I’m glad that its doors are still open, and I hope there’s a kid in the audience whose lifelong love of theater is being kindled as mine was twenty-five years ago. (Cameron Kelsall)
The Shanghai Grand Theatre
This was where I saw my first live musicals: the very first one being The Sound of Music. I also went on class trips to see The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Le Petit Prince (the French musicals came to Shanghai and they are much more daring as far as I could recall.) The musical theater I grew up with consisted of Andrew Lloyd Webber (his 50th Birthday concert DVD is probably my first introduction to musical theater), as well as French musicals (the Canadian original arena production of Notre Dame de Paris starring Garou and Helene Segara is still my favorite of all time — not the Disney version mind you). (Ran Xia)
North Shore Music Theatre
While I grew up outside of Boston, I did not venture into the city much. So my first theater exposure came through NSMT. Founded in 1955, this 1700-seat theater in the round was putting on a mix of plays and musicals when I attended in the 90s. It was built originally as a tent theater and then was closed in.
I saw Shuler Hensley play Jud Fry in Oklahoma! (and Welcome Back Kotter star Ron Palillo as Ali Hakim) and their production of City of Angels (happening three years after it was on Broadway) made me fall in love with that musical as it combined my two loves–theater and movies.
They were a bit unusual because they produced shows rather than hosted touring productions. Sometimes a famous actor would be involved (Cy Charisse was in Grand Hotel when I saw it) but sometimes it was a lesser-known soap star. From old internet credits it looks like Kristen Chenoweth and Marc Kudisch did the Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston musical Phantom (based on the novel of Phantom of the Opera) there in 1994. Rob Marshall directed Jodi Benson in Chess in 1991.
NSMT was most famous in those days for having a terrible parking lot which led some patrons to leave the show before it was over so they could get to their car and get out of the parking lot before the throngs.
In 2009, the theater went bankrupt and was bought by a local businessperson and revived. In 2017, under this new management they put on Evita with white actors in the leading roles (Constantine Maroulis as Che). After reading the article in the Boston Globe and the hostile comments from the new owner claiming they employed “colorblind” casting, I cannot say any warm feelings I had for the theater could really survive this retrograde bullshit. (Nicole Serratore)
The Wellington Summer Shakespeare
I’m from Wellington, New Zealand and The Wellington Summer Shakespeare is almost as old as I am. Started by the Victoria University of Wellington Drama Club with a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring punk fairies (in true 80s college student style) in the outdoor “quad” of the university, it has become a Wellington institution.
The annual outdoor performances of Shakespeare, with large casts of unpaid actors (mainly college students), to which everyone brings a picnic, a rug, and a bottle of wine are the sort of regular summer event that pretty much everyone goes to, even if they don’t usually go to the theater, and that if you come from a family like mine, are practically obligatory.
From around age four, I had been determined to be an actor, but one of my most indelible theater memories is watching a different Summer Shakespeare Midsummer around—I think—age eight. I was transfixed by the actor playing Helena. I was the kind of little girl who was always drawn to the prettiest character and I would have expected myself to be enraptured by Hermia, but Helena had the audience eating out of her hand. I’ve no idea who she was, but she was brilliantly funny, warm, smart, and engaged and I just remember thinking, I want to be you.
The Wellington Summer Shakespeare continued to shape my theatrical life. I still haven’t played Helena, but my first acting gig when I returned to New Zealand after 3 years in the U.S. for my MFA was the Chorus/Catherine in a Wellington Summer Shakespeare production of Henry V.
I’m more critical of the Summer Shakespeare now than I was as a wide-eyed and delightful eight-year-old, but it has been so formative a part of my theater experience that it is almost inseparable from my identity as either a theater maker or theatergoer. It has definitely cemented some of the feelings I have about always making theater for the audience (whatever that might mean for each production), mainly because of witnessing the wonderful alchemy of the outdoors, food, and drinks that joins the audience and performers together (human connection is half the point, right?) and allows even people who might normally find Shakespeare inaccessible to relax into the whole experience. (Alison Walls)
Indie Theater Scene in Shanghai
Both my parents worked (still work) in the literary, artistic industries so we were occasionally invited to productions at the Shanghai Drama School and throughout the independent theater scene in the city. Some of my fondest memories of theater experiences come from those places. I remember seeing a production of Othello where the entire set was basically a cube–standing at an angle (think the cube at Astor Place) hollowed out–and Desdemona spent pretty much the entire play inside. My mind is perhaps playing tricks but I remember having a visceral reaction to that aesthetic. I also remember seeing a one-woman opera, The Human Voice (based on Jean Cocteau’s La voix humaine, which is a forty-minute, one-act opera for a soprano and orchestra composed by Francis Poulenc). Without understanding the text, the essence of the piece stayed with me and I think it without a doubt influenced my love for a solid solo performance that could exist in a liminal space.
Of course, there’s also the wide variety of Chinese theater. In Shanghai, Pingtan was huge. Pingtan (评弹, originated from Suzhou, and was a big part of Thunderstorm 2.0 which I reviewed last year), translated literally to English means commentary and play (as in playing an instrument, in this case a Pipa). The two performers, mostly a man and a woman, would assume the role of storytellers; they could narrate, sing, orchestrate, and embody every character in classical tales. Chinese stand-ups (相声) and sketch comedies (小品) were also big parts of my theatrical upbringing if we dig deep. I cannot remember a single Lunar New Year’s Eve when I wasn’t laughing ’til I was wheezing. They were quite a risk for kids with asthma. (Ran Xia)
Another long-standing Wellington theatrical institution is the reason I’m a fan of Peter Jackson, even though I find TLOTR films mind-numbingly boring and overstuffed (Heavenly Creatures, on the other hand, is superb). A few years ago, BATS Theatre, a tiny, uncommercial black box theater that has housed countless scrappy, weird, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes frankly abysmal little productions was under threat because it couldn’t afford the necessary earthquake strengthening. Jackson and wife Fran Walsh footed the bill, and then some, adding in a newly renovated and larger rehearsal space.
The collaboration between Jackson and Weta Workshop (then just a husband and wife team of puppet makers) began as a similarly scrappy artistic endeavor and I think Jackson and Walsh understood that places like BATS is where many young artists test their work (among my BATS memories is paying $5 to see a comedic musical act, The Flight of the Conchords, by a couple of guys, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement). Such places are a life source for the professional theater scene as a whole and especially important in a city like Wellington (i.e. in a small country at the bottom of the world) where theater can easily become too insular and stagnate. (Alison Walls)
Mark Taper Forum
My family moved to a suburb outside of Los Angeles when I was ten. Before that, we lived in West Virginia and North Carolina and I didn’t have much exposure to theater outside of church plays, a trip to New York where we saw Beauty and the Beast, and whatever backyard productions I dreamed up and forced my sister to star in.
I started going to Center Theatre Group a few years later on high school drama club field trips. Located at the Music Center in downtown L.A., the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum sit on one side of an iconic fountain and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion sits on the other. It’s Los Angeles’ Lincoln Center – New Formalism architecture and all – but downtown L.A. is a wasteland and the Music Center is an oasis. I remember riding the escalator up from the parking lot and taking in the plaza for the first time. I thought it was the most incredible place I’d ever seen and I still kind of feel that way. I never really “understood” Los Angeles or felt like it wanted me there, but I immediately and always felt at home at the Music Center.
Center Theatre Group, or CTG, runs the Ahmanson, Taper, and Kirk Douglas Theatres. The Douglas is ten miles away, in Culver City, the Ahmanson is mostly for touring productions, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is not run by CTG, so I don’t really have much to say about them.
For me, the Taper is the ideal theatrical space. It is a circular building with seating that wraps around a thrust stage in a way that doesn’t feel its size. The Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatres in New York have similar configurations, but both of those houses lack what makes the Taper so special. There is an immediate reciprocity between the actor on stage and the audience curved around them. The stage is like a hand offering up this little person to each and every one of us individually. The very space makes whatever’s happening on stage better.
The first show I saw there was a Cy Coleman revue called Like Jazz that starred Lillias White. Other than White, it was mostly forgettable, but Like Jazz‘s existence is what brought me to this place I loved so much. I first read Angels in America shortly after that trip and gasped when I saw that it had had its pre-Broadway tryout at the Taper. After a renovation in 2007, they would soon start displaying the Millennium Approaches Tony Award by the bathrooms and I would stop just short of kissing the glass on my way to do my business.
CTG was the subject of an incisive piece of writing by Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago. McNulty decries the theater’s management for its unimaginative programming, saying their recent seasons “[leave] the impression that the main task of an artistic director is Broadway shopping.” Indeed, in my day, I saw some wildly fascinating productions at the Taper that were not exact transfers of whatever was successful in New York. Electricidad was a Los Angeles Latinx riff on Electra by Luis Alfaro where the chorus was a trio of older women sweeping their driveways. iWitness was a thrilling play about a conscientious objector in World War II that starred Gareth Saxe in a performance I still think about to this day. (My research shows me that apparently Katrina Lenk was also in this!) I saw Annette Bening, Alfred Molina, and Sarah Paulson in The Cherry Orchard. I attended the first preview of Jason Robert Brown’s 13 and still say the Los Angeles version was much better than what eventually made it to Broadway. There was a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore in 2010 that starred an unbelievably brilliant Chris Pine and a coup de théâtre where the entire stage was sloshed with blood and body parts in the briefest of blackouts.
I knew that whatever I’d see at the Taper would teach me something about my craft. I thought I wanted to be an actor during those years and my dream was always to take that stage. It feels like the most hospitable place for acting imaginable and I’ve never seen a bad performance there. Maybe it’s my deep love for that place giving me rose-colored glasses, or maybe it’s actually just a breathtaking building where real magic happens. (Lane Williamson)