Never Done: Bells Are Ringing
I feel a little sheepish that I'm writing so many posts about seeing theater -- like I should be engaging in a greater variety of activities I've never done -- and also I feel like I should warn you that the marathon is not quite over. (In other words, expect yet another theater post tomorrow.) But one of the reasons I live in New York is to see theater and film that I can't see anywhere else, and this has been a tremendous week. My friend Jesse took me to see the Encores production of Bells Are Ringing, a 1956 Broadway musical about a boundary-loose woman who works for an answering service, and who can't help but get involved in her client's lives. Romance ensues.
I love the spirit of Encores. They do concert readings of musicals that have been rarely heard by today's audiences. Every now and then, an Encores production becomes a Broadway revival (I think this is how the most recent Gypsy made it to Broadway) but often they just live for a long weekend on the City Center stage. We sat in phenomenal seats -- front row mezzanine -- which afforded us a clear view of every orchestra instrument. And since Encores features the orchestra prominently on stage, instead of in a pit, I got to pay more attention to the instruments than I usually do. And I noticed some things for the first time. (Shehekhianu.) I noticed that I could hear every instrument in the orchestra -- literally every instrument -- except the piano. I could hear the harp, the violins, the violas, the guitar, the reeds, the flutes, the horns, the drums ... (I hope I am not leaving anything out) but I couldn't hear the piano. I asked Jesse about it at intermission, and he explained to me that the piano doesn't take the melody, and that unless it's got a specific solo, it is there to double the strings and rhythm instruments, to add texture to the sound. For all the orchestral music I have listened to, I had really never noticed this before.
The other sound we noticed, because it was impossible not to, was the elaborate meal the people sitting behind us unwrapped and masticated throughout the entire performance. I literally turned all the way around in my seat at one point to see what could be making such a noise, and saw that it was just an oversized cookie in a little paper bag. (A cookie that I could have extricated soundlessly, and eaten silently.) But this couple didn't seem interested in being soundless or silent. They crunched and crinkled and squeezed and chewed until finally Jesse turned around and spoke to them clearly, firmly, and somehow warmly -- and to my amazement, they put away their metaphorical peanuts and crackerjacks, and we heard to the rest of the show as it was meant to be heard.
I wrote yesterday that this week's mide (character trait that we reflect on in Mussar to help us lead an ethical life) is equanimity: rise above events that are inconsequential. I also wrote that the challenge then is to determine what is of consequence and what is not. There's a reason we're not allowed to bring food into the theater -- it's loud, it's messy, and it smells -- all things that interfere with other people's enjoyment of the production. In other words, it's totally against the rules to bring food into the theater, and even if I'm one to bend bureaucratic rules here and there, these people were also violating all the social rules. So why was it so hard to turn around and ask them to stop when the very rules validate that our concern is legitimate?
In Mussar practice, we are encouraged to ask how difficult situations are for the other, not to focus solely on how they are for ourselves. This is a real sticking point for people who have been socialized to always think about the other and to subsume the self. Luckily, as I've written before, a modern interpretation of Mussar recognizes this dilemma, and asks us to determine what is the legitimate concern of the yetzer hore (the selfish impulse.) It can be a complicated process. I think Jesse and I went through four of the five stages of grief before finding the path to address our legitimate concern.
Denial: That can't be Tupperware. And even if it is, they just need a little snack, and they'll put it away soon.
Anger: Seriously? Cellophane? Seriously? (Turn around and stare at their main course.)
Bargaining: Just let me make it to the intermission.
Depression: What's the point? There's nothing we can do about it.
The fifth stage of grief is acceptance: I can't fight it, I might as well prepare for the worst. But when Jesse decided that we had a legitimate concern, he transcended acceptance and went to a place of powerful engagement. He did it kindly (taking care of the other.) He did it firmly (taking care of the self.) And the end result was that he did it effectively. And I rewarded him with some chocolate I had stashed in my purse.