In London early this year some of us saw a play about a play in rehearsal written by Alan Bennett called The Habit of Art.
The play was set where it was performed, in the Royal National Theatre, a hulking concrete complex on the city's South Bank. People hated the National when it was first built in the 1960's. It was not as architecturally impressive as Colorado College's new Cornerstone theatre, but it was at least as unfriendly. One prominent director suggested the theatre company should just leave, and its three theaters should be rented out as a skating rink, a billiard hall, and a boxing ring. Then after 20 years, with the pretension beaten of out of it, the space would have become human and the actors could sneak back in. But as the stage manager of Alan Bennett's play says, the director was wrong.
"Because what's knocked the corners off the place, taken the shine off it and made it dingy and unintimidating--are plays. Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten--- but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art."
Anyone lucky enough to hear this speech delivered at the National could only agree. The great theatre is no longer intimidating, and that's because so much work, so many plays have been done there. Plays, plays, plays.
I thought of this speech last night going to the first reading of Arsenic and Old Lace in the second floor of University Hall. When I walked down the hall, in the music room, I saw several fetching girls in leopard skin tops writhing about happily, warming up. They were the Meneads from the student production of The Bacchae which opens tonight. Excited, writhing, happy young women in leopard skin tops are never to be to be denied, and I found myself plunging myself amongst them, practically begging to be torn apart, a willing sacrifice. "No, no,"they said, "we're the good bacchantes--not those crazy women who rip people from limb to limb." Disappointed yet grateful to be alive, I went off to the first reading of our screwball comedy featuring two of the dearest, sweetest serial killers you'll ever meet--- with 15 good actors around a table, Teddy Roosevelt blowing his bugle and his psycho brother imitating Boris Karloff. At the end of our first act we took a break, and found the cast of yet another play, produced by Theatre 'd art, rehearsing in the adjacent Osborne studio. There I met a fine actor I had not cast in a leading role in Arsenic (he was great, but I went with a younger man). I was worried he might be distressed about not being in our show, so close and far away, but it turns out he was quite happy now playing Bob or Ray in the Kurt Vonnegut extravanganza. When our reading was done I walked out again and found a colleague who had just had a very hard night upstairs in the final dress of our Greek Tragedy. She just needed to go home she said, walking sadly away, a dejected queen. The director was agitated and would have been tearing his hair out if he had any. The production which he had loved the night before looked sluggish in final dress (this is an old story, and not a bad one--the actress will be fine, and so will the show).
Last night, for the first time in my memory, there were three productions in full rehearsal at the same time in University Hall. The building has never been really intimidating, but neither was it designed as a theater. But last night, tonight, and for many nights to come it is not only a theater but three theaters. Three entirely different worlds are being constructed, and in the seams actors, students, techies, designers, musicians, teachers pass each other, exchange greetings, weep, laugh, and commiserate. Who needs the Royal National Theatre, when we have something ever cozier right here, and just as busy, just as full of the eager, fabulous, absurd energy of the theater? And what makes this all possible? Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art.
There's nothing like it.