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Howard Sherman: Theatre completists, you can’t see everything – revel in those you can

The one that got away – The Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Photo: Reg Wilson / RSC
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In his essential 1983 book on the movie industry, William Goldman (screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and The Princess Bride) summed up the one crystalline fact that he had learned from more than two decades toiling in motion pictures, writing: “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman’s simple declaration about film executives, marketers, artists, and so on, meant to make clear that every formula for success, every definitively stated opinion, was subject to unpredictable vagaries that would make one project a success and another a flop. That a rejection here, or a revision demanded there, was no guarantee. It has become a mantra for many, especially those who want to break the mould.

I wish that I could offer counsel as fundamental and all-encompassing about the field of theatre, and perhaps something will come to me before I retire. However, as I was preparing for my current visit to London, the closest thing I have to Goldman’s pithy summation began to ring in my ears, though more for audience than for professionals. “You can’t see everything,” I reminded myself. “You can’t see everything.”

This refrain echoed because my current nine-day visit to the UK is no holiday, but a working trip focused on my current book project. I will see one show multiple times, including at rehearsal – Our Town at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park – but that means I won’t have time to see much else.

How Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has revived Thornton Wilder’s ‘dark and profound’ US classic Our Town

This stands in contrast to my earliest trips to London, which began in 1998. I packed my schedule with theatre, usually managing about nine shows in seven days, including side trips to places like the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and Chichester Festival Theatre. Maximising my theatre time was a badge of honour to flash at my industry friends when I returned home.

But the fact remains that there is vastly more theatre than anyone can possibly see. Even for someone independently wealthy, with a private jet at the ready.

With a narrow focus on, say Broadway, or the West End, seeing everything is not out of the question, but hardly sufficient in variety for a theatrical omnivore. The moment wider horizons are opened up – Off-Broadway, Off-West End, fringe and regional theatre – the multitude of possibilities expands exponentially.

In the US, the sheer size of the country becomes a major obstacle, yet I find myself longing for a week every few months in Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, because I am constantly aware of all that I miss.

This has proved frustrating for me, a compulsive completist (I have seen 40 Alan Ayckbourn plays; only another 43 to go at last count). So my mantra of “you can’t see everything” is both caution and comfort. When something is provably impossible, then it takes the edge off trying to achieve it.

Unseen shows will always be an itch I cannot scratch, but with my hard-learned mantra, less of an annoyance than in my obsessive youth. The best I can do is work to self-curate the most intriguing menu from what is reasonably available, and treat myself to something special, something far-flung, every once in a while.

My mantra also came to mind last week as a result of a social media game about rock concerts – which I repurposed for theatre – where the writer listed seven shows and people had to guess the one they hadn’t seen. In my case, the unseen show was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

However, I did not miss Nickleby. I actually turned down a ticket. Why? My theatergoing was almost entirely self-motivated. My parents had taken me fewer than a half-dozen times. So when they offered to buy me a Nickleby ticket – at the then-astronomical price of $100 for both parts – I thought very hard, before thanking them and saying no.

I said no because I knew that $100 for a theatre ticket was something my parents would never spend on themselves – an unthinkable luxury. I loved them for making the offer – entirely unbidden – as I had never so much as mentioned the show. They knew of it from its media fame. But I simply could not allow them to do something so extravagant, knowing they would deny themselves an equivalent pleasure.

More than 35 years later, Nickleby remains the show I probably most wish I’d seen – one that was within my grasp. But I have never regretted making the right choice for me and for my parents at that moment, softening the loss of what surely would have been one of the great experiences of what became an avid theatregoing life. But, I remind myself, you can’t see everything. So just revel in what you can see, and let that be enough.

This week in US theatre

Octet, the newest musical from the ever-adventurous Dave Malloy – who gave us Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 – opens this Sunday at Signature Theatre Off-Broadway. The a cappella exploration of addiction and technology, for which Malloy is book writer, lyricist and composer, is directed by Annie Tippe.

Bess Wohl’s Continuity reunites the playwright with director Rachel Chavkin (who staged the above Natasha, Pierre, as well as Broadway’s current Hadestown) for this story of a film crew trying to get its last shot while a sheet of ice covers the normally sun-baked state of New Mexico. The eco-comedy, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center venue, opens on Tuesday.

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

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