Friday, May 31, 2024

Experiences From Front Row Seating

I passed up an opportunity to sit in the first row of the Helen Hayes Theater Thursday night to see Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger in “Mother Play.”

Gilda had to exchange our normal Second Stage tickets. We were given the first seats off the aisle in rows A and B. I suggested Gilda might prefer sitting in Row A to thwart the possibility my head might obscure some of her view. At play’s end she gave the production and her seat rave reviews. 

Last time I sat in the first row for a Broadway show was back in the summer of 1968. On a day off from counseloring at Camp Columbia in Elizaville, NY, a group of us drove to Manhattan and bought discount tickets to Tom Stoppard’s smash hit  “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” 

I don’t normally remember specifics about where I have sat for Broadway shows but what transpired that day has stayed with me for more than five decades. 

During one of their conversations about Hamlet, either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern—I could never distinguish between the two lithe actors—edged too close to the lip of the stage and … fell into my lap! I quickly and eagerly helped him regain his stage presence. 

I’ve had several other notable front row experiences. On another day off from summer camp, this time to see Peter, Paul and Mary at SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center), my front row seat enabled me to make eye contact with Dick Kniss, the trio’s long-time bass player positioned several yards behind them. Eye contact developed into nonverbal communication which ended dramatically when our “dialogue” caused Kniss to miss by a beat his cue to accompany the singers (another apology—I cannot remember the name of the song). 

A Third Apology: I cannot say during which performance at Playwrights Horizons I was unintentionally spat upon by actor Peter Friedman. Sorry, but from 2009 through 2017 Friedman was in five plays we saw at the Off-Broadway theater company. All I remember is him standing at the edge of stage left and articulating his soliloquy so boldly that I was repeatedly showered in my front row seat. I could have used an umbrella. 

Speaking of an umbrella, that protective device provided me momentary fame at the conclusion of “The Thin Place,” another Playwrights Horizon production in December 2019. A play about telepathy ended with the lead actor facing me as I sat to the extreme right of the stage. 

She wanted to demonstrate anyone could experience telepathy. She took a pad and marker pen out of a table drawer, wrote down a word, held it to her chest and implored me to concentrate on this unknown word that she would be trying to transmit to me. 

She asked what I had heard in my head, just behind my forehead. I replied, too softly at first for her, let alone for the audience, to hear. Louder, I said, “Umbrella.” Turning the pad toward the audience she revealed what she had written—Umbrella. The audience gasped. The stage went dark. The audience clapped.

Audience members approached me to ask, Did I really receive a telepathic message? Had I been primed by the theater staff prior to the performance to say umbrella? Was I an actor planted in the audience?

No, on all counts. Just before I was ready to say a different word, I heard a faint but distinct metallic voice say, “Umbrella.” I quickly processed my role, though to be sure I at first whispered “umbrella,” hoping the actress could read my lips. With her encouragement I repeated aloud the last word of the play.

No one else had heard the transmission, not even Gilda seated next to me. The theater must have targeted a narrowcast to my seat alone. I couldn’t prove it but it was the only rational explanation. After all, I was familiar with narrowcasting systems retailers have sometimes used to direct messages to workers or shoppers in specific locations so as not to alert or bother customers or staff throughout a store. Messages such as a special sale for those currently in the housewares department. Or staff should clean up a spill in aisle eight. 

Live theater and concerts, especially if you’re in the front row, can provide bold and unexpected experiences.