Before I moved to New York, I showed little interest in live theater. My basic concept of the theater was that it is just like the movies, only not as good and vastly more expensive. Instead of seeing the finest actors in the world, you see the finest actors in the local area who have failed to be called to Hollywood. Instead of being able to see a constantly changing panorama of camera-angles and positions, you see everything from a single, unchanging perspective, which is rarely close enough to be able to appreciate the minutiae of the performances. There may be some special effects in a theatrical production, but they are so limited compared with what the movies can offer. Combine all that with ticket prices that are a multiple of the price of movie admission and it is easy to see why people like me who share this perspective will stay away from the theater in droves.
Now I am a New Yorker, my perspective has shifted a little, although I still do not really count myself a true theater-goer. But I have found that live theater really does have certain special qualities that you just can't find in the movies. One of these qualities is the fact that it takes place in real time. On a crude level, this provides the thrill of wondering if anyone will flub their lines, but more importantly, it allows potentially a greater degree of immersion, since you are closer to actually watching events unfold, rather than viewing a sort of historical record of those events. In addition, as a member of the theater audience, you can never be quite sure that you won't find an actor materializing at your elbow and dragging you onto the stage, thereby turning you from a spectator into a performer. While this is not necessarily something you want to have happen to you, the potential does lend a little extra edge to the evening.
The day of my first exposure to the real New York City theater began at noon, when I decided to hop over to Times Square, to see about obtaining some half-price tickets to a show that evening. When I arrived, I looked at the list of shows which were offering half-price tickets and, sadly, found that most of them were totally unknown to me. Finally, I decided that I would go for Les Miserables, which at least was a familiar story and which had been playing for a long time, so I headed back to the end of the ticket line.
The line was long and moved slowly and I soon became impatient. Eventually, I noticed that there were several men who were talking to people in the line and writing things down in little notebooks. Aha, I thought, they are arranging for the tickets to be printed out ahead of time to speed things up. Eventually, one of these men came up to me and asked what tickets I wanted. I replied that I was looking for two tickets for tonight's performance of Les Miserables. He consulted his little book briefly. "Well", he said, "I am a ticket broker and can let you have them for $35 apiece right now." I was a little confused. "You mean you are not working with the organization that is selling the tickets in the booth ahead?" "That's right", he said, "In fact they are not enthusiastic about my horning in on their turf, so I am just taking orders here. If you want to buy the tickets, you'll need to meet me over there" - gesturing to a side-street nearby. I looked back at the line which seemed to have stalled out completely. I considered my options. Why should I burn more of my valuable lunch hour standing here? Am I not a man of action, able to seize opportunities when they present themselves? "OK", I said, "Let's go do it." He walked me across the street to where a couple of other people like myself were waiting. He pointed at each one, confirmed their order and totalled up how much it came to. Then we all got out our wallets and took out the necessary sum. Where possible, he made change immediately; otherwise, he noted down how much he owed each person in his little notebook. Finally, he said "Right - I'll step into my office to get the tickets and will be back in a hearbeat." He walked up the steps to a little office building and went in.
A heartbeat went by and then a little more. We looked at each other and thought about making small talk. Why bother - after all, we'll out of here in no time at all? But five or ten minutes went by before the first person voiced the thought that we had all begun to have. "Well, gentlemen, I guess we were taken." We looked up at the nearby office - there was absolutely no indication that a ticket-broker had an office there and a closer look revealed that there was an exit on to the next block. Back at the ticket line, all of the men with notebooks had disappeared. One by one, we accepted the fact that we had been played as chumps and, smiling with embarassment, wandered back to the ticket line. I was the last to leave - maybe he had to go to the bathroom? A client had come in and had unreasonably delayed him? But no; I was just a chump like the others.
When the knowledge of my chumphood became inescapable to me, my first reaction was a murderous rage. I'll get this guy if it's the last thing I do! I began to plan my revenge. They probably don't work this line every day, but I bet he'll be back within a couple of weeks. I'll be here with high-powered binoculars and will spot him as soon as he arrives. Then I'll accost him and loudly demand my money back. He will initially deny ever having seen me before but eventually will realize that he needs to shut me up before I alert the crowd to the fact that he is a phony. Hurriedly pulling his wallet from his pocket, he shoves two $50 bills into my hand and growls "Get lost!"
But am I really willing to spend the next couple of weeks skulking around with my high-powered binoculars? And is he likely to go down that easy? "I'm so sorry about the other day - my secretary had a heart attack and I had to administer CPR. Here, I've got the money in my car, which is down this dark alleyway." Or: "Let me introduce you to my associates who will be happy to listen to your complaint and provide appropriate compensation - in that same alleyway." Perhaps I should forget about accosting him and just have the cops haul him in. "I'm innocent!" he cries as they stuff him into the squad car; later at the station, I identify him in a line-up. The detective smiles knowingly: "Benny the weasel - this time he's going down!", he says as he warmly shakes my hand.
But what proof do I have that I have been wronged by him? Absolutely none. Why would the police even bother to arrest him? Now I see the scorn on the policeman's face: "Sorry, kid - you should have known better. Move along, now." Perhaps I'm better off forgetting about the authorities and securing justice on the free market. I place a call to Carlos the Jackal who agrees to gun him down from the roof with a military sniper rifle.
But Carlos wants $50,000 for the hit. "And don't forget to pay me - after all, I know where you live" is his parting comment. Now I realize the madness of throwing additional money after my original investment of $70 without the slightest prospect of recovering so much as a penny.
Finally, I hit on a response that gives me satisfaction without requiring me to spend time in jail or losing every penny I have. I had wanted the theater and that is what I had got! Here was exactly the power of live theater - everything happening in real time, the audience starting out thinking that they are playing a limited role and suddenly realizing that they are central to the play. And all I had plunked down was the quite modest equivalent to half-price tickets to Les Miserables - how could I honestly argue that I had not had my money's worth? The play was good, the surprise ending was, well, a real surprise, and it had conjured up all kinds of extremely powerful emotions in me. A smile spreads over my face as I contemplate the subtleties of the play I had just been a part of.
And, perhaps best of all, it was in the form of a traditional morality play, with a moral at the end that I shall never forget.
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