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  • Scott Carter Cooper

My First Time

While I do see larger, well-funded productions, my heart lies with small, storefront theatre. My last theatrical experience, pre-pandemic, was a concert reading at Raven of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman.

Ah, the innocence of the before time, way back in late February, 2020.

And as we rolled into our second year of the pandemic, I’m on record stating that Chicago theatre would make a cautious return in the fall of 2021, with things getting almost back to normal for holiday shows. Lori Lightfoot put that prediction in a bit of jeopardy when she reinstated the mask mandates this summer, but by and large the prediction has held true.

I’m also on record as hating Zoom performances. I’ve attended some, and for the most part they haven’t been bad. But they haven’t been satisfying either. I need live theatre.

So, it was with no small amount of giddiness I went to my first live performance in more than a year and a half. Understandably theatres aren’t trotting out much risk. No microscopic examinations of societal ills. We need to bring audiences back with some gentleness. Just live, breathing actors saying words is all that’s required at this point.

As I left the make-shift CTA station at Bryn Mawr, I nearly fainted with the familiarity of the smell of freshly cut plywood and paint. This is a smell that anyone who’s attended a show in previews in a storefront theatre instantly knows. It felt like an embrace, and this was just the CTA station.

The first play I remember ever seeing was a community theatre production of Light Up the Sky. It was a Friday night, and the performance was given in the smaller of two theaters in our local high school. My little sister came with me, and we sat in the front row. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. We laughed a lot, and during the curtain call my sister yelled out to the cast, “You were very funny!” For a bunch of reasons that’s one of my favorite memories in the theatre.

As I walked to Redtwist to see The Humans I remembered that night. Somewhat brisk, early autumn. A little anxious, not really knowing what to expect.

The walk down Bryn Mawr was sad. A lot of the small businesses and my favorite restaurant didn’t survive Covid. There were fewer people on the street than normal. Things just felt odd. More still in a way that isn’t usual in Chicago. Not even Christmas morning. Then I realized that this had been the first time I’d been on the street after dark in more than a year and a half. Covid had shrunk my world, but I didn’t necessarily realize to what extent until I was standing on an empty sidewalk on one of Chicago’s major streets.

Redtwist is an intimate space. It always has been. Even before Covid, it had been a couple of years since I’d seen a show there. Kathleen Ruhl is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors Chicago has ever had and I’d hoped she was in this show. I was a little disappointed that she was only understudying The Humans, but I was just as excited to see this show as I’d been to go to my first play all those years ago. I don’t know if they’d reconfigured the space specifically for this production, or if this was done a while ago, but the risers are gone and instead seats are set around the perimeter of the long, narrow room. This has always been my favorite configuration, and I hope it remains. This was the first preview, and of course the audience was required to remain masked. I didn’t ever think of what the actors would be doing, but they were masked as well, with clear plastic coverings that soon became virtually invisible in the performance of their first preview. I go to a lot of previews, and I don’t think I’ve ever been to one that was sold out. I guess I wasn’t the only one eager to get back to the boards. The performance was nothing less than a bracing tonic. Everyone drank in every word of the performance, and while I refrained from shouting my approval, I was every bit as satisfied as I was after that first community theatre performance I saw with my sister. I wanted more and still do.

Theatre is back, and I am overjoyed to be back with it!

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