When I was young—yes, a while back now—I was drawn to the arts (dance, music, theatre, painting and drawing plus architecture) because I was convinced I had something to say that would reveal this small-town Okie boy was someone who had something to say that everyone should hear.
I was, of course, still working out what that “something” would be as I went through trainings and apprenticeships in all the arts. When finally, post-training days, I found myself on stage I quickly realized I didn’t have so much to say as I had much to learn. For decades now I’ve had a mantra I learned from Aristotle (oh, no, not firsthand—I’m old but not THAT old) the mantra being “to learn gives the liveliest pleasure.” And the learning goes from the audience to me, not the other way around as I had thought in my youthful arrogance. I think I’m a smart enough actor, but the collective intelligence and the life experiences of an audience certainly trumps my own. Now I know my main job—even if I’m playing the lead—is listening.
In my job as the Producer-Director of Theatre Three I spend a lot of time trying to get audiences to see the work at Theatre Three. Of course, I hope to get them there to provide the financial support required to keep us working. But I know deep in my soul that audiences—particularly if made up of people who see a lot of plays and dance and paintings and sculptures—those are people we need because they have so much to teach us. I’d pay THEM if I only could! And I’d GIVE away tickets to all the students I could so they begin to build references in their lives catalogued as “art experiences” but assimilated into “life experience”—distilled, rich, surprising and instructive.
I started music really early; even before first grade, my piano-teacher-mother had me sitting at the keyboard learning individual pieces by a range of classical composers as well as an occasional piece by Gershwin, as much a piano genius as Chopin, another of my grade-school enthusiasms. In the fifth grade I ripped off Chopin’s minute waltz (transposed to the simpler key of C) in 59 seconds just to show off. I was inspired by a very glamorized film on the life of Chopin: A Song to Remember with Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon. The film was probably as deceitful as the biopic with Cary Grant as Cole Porter or the Robert Alda biopic of Gershwin. But at least A Song to Remember was in glorious Technicolor, and I’ve loved Chopin’s music ever since I saw it.
A side note about Gershwin. When I was putting together a revue of Gershwin for Theatre Three (even doing research at the Library of Congress in D.C.), Theatre Three’s board produced a benefit concert; one of four that used Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler, the famed and beloved conductor of the Boston Pops. Fiedler had known every musician on the American scene for decades, and as I drove him to the airport, I asked him to tell me any stories about Gershwin I might be able to use in the revue. He told how shocked he was at Gershwin’s early death: “After all, he always took such good care of himself—had a massage right after every concert and smoked only the best Cubans.” When I pressed for more, Arthur shocked me by saying, “Of course he wasn’t a good pianist.” I protested: I had read in many books how Gershwin dazzled everyone in society with brilliant playing at party after party after party. Arthur said, “Oh well, yes, on his own stuff he was … “(he paused to find the right word) “authentic, but he couldn’t play anybody else worth a damn.” Arthur had his standards.
Though I got tap lessons in grade school (Mother swapped out being the rehearsal pianist for my enrollment fee) it wasn’t those early tap lessons that turned me on to dancing. In college I took some “modern” dance classes and was completely hooked on dance which led me to seek out seeing ballet, modern and appreciate dancing in Broadway shows (like Agnes DeMille’s work in Oklahoma! and Carousel). Touring dance companies came to Oklahoma City regularly during my college days—I saw lots of great stars of ballet in person (both Tallchiefs, Hightower, Alanzo) as well as modern companies like Jose Limón and that flamenco primo, Jose Greco. I caught on to Fosse early and Jerome Robbins. My first New York trip included seeing the original production of West Side Story. Lucky me.
I reluctantly (but accurately) figured out I’d always like to dance, but had neither the body nor the technique to consider being a professional. But I had a passion to watch dance, and it’s made me a good consumer of choreography in musicals I’ve directed or produced during this long career in theatre. My brief association with the late Bruce Wood two years ago now (where I narrated parts of his all male ballet exploring relationships of fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and grandfathers) was a great return to participation in a dance piece even though I spoke rather than danced. I felt wonderfully “at home” on the stage and in the rehearsals with the splendid dancers.
My degree is in architecture, influenced as a degree choice by my home-building father. That discipline trained my eye on paintings and drawings along with coming to know the architectural forms and structural approaches from ancient to modern times, the use and nature of building materials, and the always enterprising construction techniques that manipulate the mediums of building materials. The demands of an architectural degree program are eye opening, awakening one’s sight to texture, color, three-dimensional form, and (like dance) the nature of gravity. My favorite piece of architecture in Dallas? I’d say “hands down, the Nasher” except last Friday I was again in the breathtaking interior of Temple Emanu-El built in the mid-50s by Howard Meyer. It really doesn’t get any better than that—anywhere.
I love hearing what seminal artistic experiences shaped my friends’ lives. Leave a note if you are so inclined.
» Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:
- September 2013: Theater's unsung philantrophists
- October 2013: Theater artists and their critics
- November 2013: Ch-Ch-Changes
- December 2013: What the Audience Knows
- January 2014: What's New?
- February 2014: Upgrading to the Modern World
- March 2014: Not to Worry
- April 2014: If Not for Shaw
- May 2014: Back to the Future
- June 2014: 500 Ways to Remember
- July 2014: They're Alive. ALIVE!
- August 2014: Raise Your Voice
- September 2014: Playwrights I Have Known
- October 2014: The Bread and Butter