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Howard Sherman: Sometimes the people who changed our lives are just a few seats away

Taissa Farmiga, Nat Wolff, Ed Harris in Buried Child. Photo: Monique Carboni Taissa Farmiga, Nat Wolff, Ed Harris in Buried Child. Photo: Monique Carboni
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Working in the theatre, it’s easy to forget what compelled us into the profession in the first place. It can be lost amid the realities of the job at hand, chasing the next opportunity and our familiarity with the things that enthralled us once upon a time.

It is also easy to forget what a personal experience theatre can be, where actors walk out of stage doors every night to waiting fans. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated by movies and television.

Yet I have never forgotten the thrill theatre gave me in my teens. Specifically, I trace all that has occurred for me professionally, and in large part personally, to the year 1979.

I was a junior in high school when I saw the play that changed my life. It was Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, in a production directed by Adrian Hall at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and its effect on me was profound. All I wanted to do from that point was to be a part of the world of theatre.

Ten years ago, it helped inspire a book I conceived while at the American Theatre Wing called The Play That Changed My Life. In its pages theatremakers, specifically playwrights, told the stories of their ‘lightbulb moments’ in theatre. And I was able to commit my story of seeing Buried Child to print.

Which brings us to three nights ago: I was watching Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff in a tiny space at 59 E 59 Theaters. Perhaps 10 minutes before the show began, Tony Shalhoub – who was in that production of Buried Child and a Yale Drama graduate – and his wife Brooke Adams sat in the row behind me, just far enough away that I couldn’t easily turn to speak to them.

Then, just minutes before the play began, a couple slid by me to take two of the few remaining seats in the theatre. Remarkably it was the other Yale Drama student who appeared in that Buried Child, Polly Draper – well known to fans of the 1980s TV series Thirtysomething.

I was completely dumbfounded that in a 50-seat theatre I was sat just feet away from two of the actors who appeared in the play that changed my life some four decades ago.

Running without an interval, when the 90-minute play ended I waited as most of the audience departed. Then I turned and, interrupting Draper, Shalhoub, and their spouses, I greeted Tony, who I had once met some years ago, and again waxed lyrical about Buried Child.

As my words tumbled out, Polly interjected, “I was in that too,” to which I responded: “I know, and that’s why I had to say something to you both.” Polly’s husband mentioned their son had been in the play for The New Group, and I said that I had seen that production as well.

Parting, I felt immediate, overwhelming embarrassment. I had been a stammering fool, a yammering fan, who had inserted myself into the theatregoing afterglow of these evidently lifelong friends. I had ‘zero cool’ about the whole experience.

I wish I could have a do-over, to say with greater eloquence how much that Buried Child meant to me, how vividly I remember their performances and those of their cast mates, how much of these past 40 years I can trace to the few hours I spent in their presence at the Yale Rep.

I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to tell them whatever I managed to blurt out, and taken the time to more graciously approach them, and introduce myself to their spouses. I wish I’d had a copy of the book with me.

This was a moment four decades in the making, and I fear I didn’t make the most of it. I hope that despite the adrenaline, I conveyed some measure of my appreciation to them.

Next time I unexpectedly meet someone whose work has meant so much to me – and I am fortunate to have met many – I will try to do better. But I’m glad I said whatever I did manage to say, and I’m glad to work in a field where I don’t just watch the people whose work means so much to me from afar. We must all seize those opportunities. Sometimes, the people who changed our lives are just a few seats away.

Howard Sherman: The great Sam Shepard plumbed the dark recesses of the American soul

This week in US theatre

The first viral sensation to reach Broadway, Be More Chill completes its multi-year journey from Two River Theater in New Jersey to Off-Broadway to the Great White Way on Sunday. The musical by Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz is directed by Stephen Brackett and features much of the same company that has been with it from the start.

Two of the plays that prompted my column of last weekIf Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka and Hatef**k – receive their premieres this week, on Sunday at Playwrights Horizons and Wednesday at WP Theater respectively. The former, by Tori Sampson and directed by Leah Gardiner, explores self-image among a group of young African women, while the latter, by Rehana Lew Mirza and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, looks at the tempestuous relationship between a literature professor and a novelist.

Florian Zeller’s The Mother, in Christopher Hampton’s translation and directed by Trip Cullman, makes its New York debut on Monday at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company. In a casting coup, Isabelle Huppert leads the company.

Retooled for the modern era by Amanda Green, daughter of Adolph Green, one of the show’s creators way back in 1948, Kiss Me, Kate returns to Broadway in a production from Roundabout Theatre. Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase play the battling stars in this musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Scott Ellis, opening Thursday.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

Forget reviews: How social media secured a Broadway transfer for Be More Chill

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