Tuesday I went to the opening of the Royal Danish Ballet’s stand at Zellerbach Hall. The evening had some pleasures, which I may or may not get to, for reasons you may or may not see.
The show started at the inevitable 8:00 PM. I’ve been complaining for years about the standard 8:00 PM start time and everyone has assured me that it can’t possibly change and no one has ever once offered me a solid reason why. If someone can actually offer me such a reason (as in, “X percentage of our audience comes from X distance and they have to start out after 5:00 and it takes them X amount of time to travel,” and not as in “it’s so civilized,” a reason I will accept only when I live in a civilized country), then I will just write it off as part of the suckitude of life and adjust myself accordingly.
Until then, I figure I get to make this complaint at least once for every time a performance group talks about “increasing the audience” and “putting butts in seats” and blah blah blah while never actually changing a single significant thing about their operations (starting a Facebook page doesn’t count). So by that measure, I figure I get 77, 863 more opportunities to bitch about the 8:00 PM start time – oh, wait, did you hear that? Make that 77, 864 more opportunities! You know what – I think I’ll just keep the meter running on this one.
It’s just the inertia of habit. Every job I’ve had here in California has started at 8:00 AM (or earlier), and this is true of everyone I know. When people respond to me on the start-time issue they sometimes snobbishly imply that theater-goers, at least the ones who really count, just need to be important enough to stroll in late the next day. But you know who can’t get away with that? Teachers, nurses, bankers, clerks, doctors, executives . . . uh, well, just about everybody. And most of those people are not even going to consider going to something that doesn’t even start until 8:00 PM. I know this because plenty of them have told me so.
Performance groups blather endlessly about how to get 20-year-olds into the theater but it really isn't that tough to get 20-year-olds to try different things – that's what being 20 is about. I would think the obvious second part of the problem, only there doesn’t seem to be much thought given to it, is how to keep them coming back once marriages and mortgages and the grimly grinding reality of daily work take over. The sad news, and apparently it is news, is that the sexy years fleet away and the exhausted decades settle in, and unless you’re young, retired, or a member of the small cranky band of foolhardy (and unencumbered and relatively solvent) performance addicts, you are going to go for the sensible bedtime whenever you can.
And not only does the 8:00 PM start time ensure you generally get home late enough so that the next day is a gruesome ordeal – there are also hours to kill between the end of work and the start of the show. I’m genuinely curious how people fill this time, because I am finding it more and more difficult, as the brick-and-mortar bookstores and music stores close (and books and music themselves lose physical reality and join the wireless world humming around us).
I already get to theaters early. And as a non-driver, I walk or take public transportation, so you can’t get places any more slowly than I already do. I eat dinner slowly, sometimes even at places with waiters. And I still have hours to wait. There’s only so much aimless wandering you can do before you start feeling the need to rethink what you’re doing with your life, which kind of drains the pleasure out of a show. What are people doing and where are they coming from that the performance can’t possibly start until shortly after 8:00 PM?
And please don’t suggest that I go to a bar and “relax” with a drink or two. I loathe bars. And I already spend too much money on my theater-going without adding in the cost of overpriced drinks (universal truth: any place that sells food makes its profit on liquids). And by nature I’m already bleary-eyed and have a small bladder – alcohol is not going to improve my evening. And how much time can you kill in a bar anyway before some kind soul helpfully suggests AA?
At least in Berkeley I can go to Moe’s Books, my favorite bookstore. There are the increasingly frequent occasions when the oppressive sense of unread volumes starts crowding in on me and I have to flee in existential terror, but other than that, I can always manage to kill a fairly pleasant, or at least neutral, hour in there. Of course, I generally walk out having purchased more books, and if there’s one thing I really need to do more of, it’s spend more money I don’t have on more books I don’t have time to read.*
What’s that? You’re waiting for the dance stuff to start? So was I, pal, so was I.
OK, so I decided the 8:00 PM hassle and a late night were worth it to see Bournonville’s company in Bournonville’s La Sylphide, which I had only seen on DVD. This program (La Sylphide and Flindt’s The Lesson) was only being done on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I didn’t have a choice about not going in the middle of the week. A friend of mine had a perfect ticket for sale. It was expensive, but, again, I decided it would be worth treating myself.
I get to Zellerbach (still so much time to kill, but I'm tired of wandering) and the lobby monitors are telling us that there will be two twenty- to thirty-minute intermissions. I’m not sure why they’re telling us this until I realize the program only lists one intermission. I’m standing at my front-row seat waiting waiting waiting for the magic 8:00 PM hour, leafing through the program (which is a little tough to see because it’s too dim in the auditorium for comfortable reading) when a member of the Berkeley Symphony down in the pit asks to borrow my program so she can see which piece comes first. She can’t figure it out so I show her the page where it says The Lesson comes first. I’m sensing a haphazard quality to the evening. I am not yet particularly alarmed, however.
Matias Tarnopolsky, the Director of Cal Performances, who seems like a charming fellow, comes out and tells us about the intermissions and reminds us to turn off etc etc. Lights dim (even further) and the dancing finally begins! The Lesson is a sardonic little tragicomedy, performed with unemphatic precision and superbly calibrated moves. I’m enjoying it tremendously! Then the lights come back up. I see that it is about 8:30 PM, since it is a fairly short piece. We start the first intermission.
It lasts an hour. The audience (perfectly behaved during the small amount of actual dancing we’ve seen so far) is starting to get restless. Someone behind me remarks on how well-behaved the audience is, saying that if this were Paris they’d be throwing things. That starts to sound like maybe a good idea. Eventually it looks as if La Sylphide is finally going to start, which means we’ve had to wait until about 9:30 PM before the main attraction even begins. I am no longer feeling quite so happy.
The curtain goes up and it immediately becomes apparent what the delay was: the set, the interior of a Scottish castle complete with large fireplace, large window, and double staircase, is elaborately, and let me say almost tediously, detailed and realistic, and needed a corresponding amount of set-up time. And the fairly elaborate set for The Lesson needed to be taken down first.
Here’s the thing about sets: on the one hand, it’s quite interesting to see La Sylphide done in the same sort of set and style that a ballet-goer in 19th century Denmark would have seen. On the other hand, I don’t really care that much about having elaborately realistic sets. I mean, I am susceptible to their charms and recognize the importance of setting, but I’m not that invested in “realism” on stage and it’s not really crucial to my theater-going experience that the set look exactly like a photograph you might see in a brochure for a Scottish bed-and-breakfast, and I’m not going to walk out of there thinking how ineffably charming it was to see a real ceiling or how profoundly moving I found it when the dancers went up and down the stairs.
Clearly the Royal Danish Ballet or whoever is handling the sets simply cannot install and remove them in a non-absurd amount of time. I realize that things go wrong in live theater, but this is not just “one of those things,” one of those almost endearing mishaps that remind us that live theater happens in the moment: this is a huge miscalculation and a major fail and a time-wasting fuck-up of vast proportions, and I hope you can see past all those italics that what’s especially irritating is that the evening could have maybe absorbed the delay a bit better if the show had started even half an hour earlier instead of at goddam 8:00 PM.
So La Sylphide finally starts. I am determined to enjoy it. Let me repeat that it’s already 9:30 PM. Our hero James (Mads Blangstrup) is sitting in a chair, sleeping, which is probably what I would be doing if I were at home, so I empathize with our hero. Our Sylphide, the insufficiently ethereal Caroline Cavallo, enters, and I try to avoid guilt by association but can’t help noticing she bears an unfortunate resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker, the hacky star of the trashy Sex and the City. I try to put that out of my mind, but I’ve seen precious little dance for the amount of time and money I’ve spent so far, so I’m not in the most charitable mood. She is grinning and hopping around, looking very physical. I was expecting more unworldly melancholy from the role that made Taglioni a legend. Despite the perkiness our Sylphide is, as required by the plot, irresistible to our James.
I notice that James’s fiancée, Effy (Camilla Ruelykke Holst), not only looks kind-hearted and sensible, she is way hotter than our Sylphide. Since James has an endearingly mischievous and cute rival, the slim young farmer Gurn (Nicolai Hansen), I’m thinking Effy would be better off not wasting her time with the moony James. Such is the cruel arbitrariness of plot, Effy must pine for James, at least through this act. Madge the Witch (Lis Jeppesen) shows up, and though my spirits are temporarily restored by delight at seeing someone known as Madge the Witch, I wonder if she is supposed to look so young and act so cartoony. We waited an hour for Act 1, and it lasts just half an hour. The lights come back up, and I have a dilemma, because we’re just starting the second intermission, and it’s already a bit past 10:00 PM.
I find an usher and ask her for a realistic guess at the performance’s end time, or at least an estimate of Act 2’s length. Act 2 lasts slightly over half an hour. The performance’s end time is apparently anyone’s guess. So, best-case scenario: the second intermission is only half an hour, meaning the show ends slightly past 11:00 PM, meaning I get home (not even to bed, just home) slightly past midnight. But I have no reason to think the best-case scenario is what’s going to happen.
We could easily be looking at another hour-long intermission (or even longer; I'm not sure how much time is required to remove a Scottish castle and install a misty forest), meaning we don’t get out of there until after 11:30 PM, meaning I don’t get home (again, not to bed, just home) until after 12:30 AM, or maybe even closer to 1:00 AM, depending on when I get to the BART station and when the train arrives.
We could even be looking at the possibility of the performance lasting past the last train, meaning I’m not only up the creek without a paddle, I’m up the creek without a canoe, unless I want to spend Act 2 nervously checking my watch and barging out of there at the witching hour whether the performance is over or not.
No matter what the case, my alarm is going off at 5:40 AM, and I have to spend from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM the next day being sentient and productive. These mental calculations are not conducive to appreciating the artistry on display, since all I'm thinking about is the clock and the various schedules and the time, and I am increasingly irritated at the whole situation.
Also, since I was up early and at work all day, I am already getting dark circles around my eyes, which is frankly kind of sexy, I think, but I am also starting to drool and go cross-eyed, which is sadly less sexy. I realize I’d better cut my losses and leave, which is not something I normally do, but I also realize I'd better submit to reality. I realize I am missing Act 2, which is what I had most wanted to see. I realize I am not the only person leaving due to worries about train schedules and running time and getting to work the next day. I assume they are all as unhappy and irritated as I am. How many will come back?
I don’t usually engage with reviewers here, because, well, why would I, but I have to say I’ve skimmed some of the reviews of that evening (by the way – I have no idea when it actually ended – does anyone out there know?) and have seen no mention of the stupefying and disastrously long intermission(s). While I am needless to say delighted at the enjoyment of people who were given free tickets and do not have to show up for their non-arts-related jobs early the next morning, their readers, who are potentially paying customers, should have a fair idea of what they’d get for their time and money.
Theater-going is supposed to be a pleasure, not an ordeal, and aesthetic delight is available in diverse ways and forms, including many that are not only less expensive, but are not going to leave people dragging through the next workday. Referring in passing to a long evening doesn’t cut it – Gotterdammerung is a long evening, but you go in knowing what you’re in for and you get a whole lot of Art for your time and money and at the end you get to see the universe burn up so everyone leaves happy. Last Tuesday night the proportion of dance to the proportion of irritatingly wasted time was like the proverbial ham in the boarding-house sandwich.
Obviously Cal Performances didn’t realize how long the intermissions would be (though shouldn’t someone have realized, and done something?), and I don’t mean to single them out, because they are far from alone in their bizarre adherence to the archaic 8:00 PM start time, and they consistently present things that are generally worth the hassle. But let’s look at this from the perspective of a paying customer, like, oh, let’s say, me: I paid $90 for a ticket, plus BART fare for a trip to Berkeley I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, plus the cost of a dinner I wouldn’t have eaten out otherwise, plus the cost of books I wouldn’t have bought if I hadn’t had to kill so much time before the curtain, and that is a lot of money when I didn’t even get to see the part of the show I most wanted to see because of poor planning and outmoded start times. And have I mentioned how much time I wasted waiting for 8:00 PM? As far as I’m concerned, my happily anticipated evening was a fiasco.
Confidential to Jolene and Lisa and anyone else who meant to get a ticket and didn’t: in case you saw some reviews and regretted missing this: don't. You dodged a bullet.
* The latest purchases at Moe's: Alexander Theroux's The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, Mary Shelley's The Last Man, and Ezra Pound's Translations.