We must support our performing arts
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OpinionGuest Columnist

We must support our performing arts

Howard Elson. (Photo by Becky Thurner)
Howard Elson. (Photo by Becky Thurner)

What are we missing the most during these challenging times?

For many, it’s the security of a job, a paycheck, a livelihood. The ability to pay for the necessities of life – food, clothing, a roof over our heads. Those always come first, they have to come first.

But there are also emotional needs that we’re missing, some of us acutely. A hug. A touch. A personal connection. Surely, once we’re fed, clothed and housed, these must also be addressed.

That is why live performance – theater, music and dance – are so important. It is also why, when this pandemic is over and we are back to some semblance of whatever will then be “normal,” live performance must be there to keep us emotionally, spiritually and humanly connected and healthy.

Movies are great. Television is great. Recorded music, dance on YouTube, are great. But they cannot take the place of the shared experience of live performance. Of artists expressing themselves, and audience members, individually and collectively, understanding, appreciating and feeling the same emotions in real time, with real people, live. Laughing, crying, feeling. This is as important for the artist as it is for the audience.

When I played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” for two runs with the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh and one with Pittsburgh Musical Theater, I was so gratified when audience members told us how moved they were by our performances. But, our little secret as actors is that we, too, are moved, energized and inspired by the audience as well as by the connections and bonds we build with our fellow stage mates.

During this pandemic, some of us have substituted performing live with performing in front of our cell phones at home. My friend, Paul, plays bass while his wife, Chris, sings TV theme songs. It’s great, but it’s not the same as their live performances, which are hysterical. I dress “up” in my bathrobe and pajamas and tell old Borscht Belt jokes in a Yiddish accent. But it’s not the same.

My wife, Robin, a CPA, and I almost always celebrate the end of tax season with a trip to New York City to see shows on and off Broadway. This year we had planned to drive to NYC on April 16 to see “Caroline, or Change,” a wonderful musical written by Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame). It’s the semi-autobiographical story of Kushner growing up Jewish in the Deep South during the infancy of the civil rights movement and the relationship of his white, Jewish, middle class family with the black “help.” More specifically, it’s about the young boy’s relationship, love and adulation for his family’s maid, Caroline. I played Grandpa Gellman in a run of this show in Dublin, Ohio for Ohio University’s professional theater troupe, Tantrum Productions, so I was also interested in seeing how much better I was than whoever they got to play “my part,” on Broadway. I’m kidding…I think.

We were also going to see the revival of “West Side Story,” perhaps the ultimate story of love destroyed by ignorance and prejudice. And, we were going to see the revival of “Company,” featuring Patti LuPone and starring the great Katrina Lenk, Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite musical about – what else?– relationships. Of course, it didn’t happen. But I cannot wait until it does. And it will, because it must.

Performing arts groups, like almost everyone else, are struggling. Large and small, from the downtown performance palaces of Heinz Hall and Benedum Center, the large companies like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, CLO and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, the brave, innovative and inspiring smaller groups, like Bricolage, Quantum, Pittsburgh Playwrights, Barebones, Front Porch and others, to the smallest community theaters in McKeesport, Trafford, Carnegie, South Park and elsewhere. Shows are cancelled, theaters are shuttered, jazz clubs are closed, music is silenced, dance immobilized. We cannot allow live performance to shrivel and die.

Please, please support your favorite performing arts group, so that when this is over they will be there to provide the live, life-size, life affirming human connections we all crave and need. Even if we’re sitting every other seat, every other row, masked en masse, we need live performance and the groups and companies that provide the joy, the sorrow, the laughter, the tears, the emotions, so that, once again, we feel we’re connected, we’re alive. PJC

Dr. Howard Elson has been a professional actor and singer longer than he’s been a pediatric dentist. He put himself through dental school singing in Catskill Mountain resorts and the only kosher night club in New York City, and is a proud member of Actor’s Equity and The American Dental Association. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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