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Memory

We were discussing finding images in class I was reminded that I used to keep scrapbooks. The images (mostly from the New York Times) had been taped into small paper notebooks and were bursting at the seams. I threw them out recently. I have gone through this process a bunch of times in my life with different collections: stickers, Wizard of Oz collectible figurines, and quarters from each state. Throwing these things out has usually been a gesture of making a clean slate, bringing in a new and better me. I wish I had kept the stickers.

I also used to “collect” stories from listening to Radiolab. In college I spent hours walking around Saratoga Springs having my breath taken away by the things in the world I know so little about. I remember thinking: these are important to me, I’m not going to forget these.

Of course I forgot most of it.

This week, I’ve been going back to reclaim those Radiolab memories. I’m finding it very difficult. When I look back at a podcast I think I remember, it seems unfamiliar. The details are lost to me and I find myself chasing the feelings I can’t be sure I had.

While thinking about this post- I clicked on an episode called “Memory and Forgetting”

Listening to this Radiolab, I was struck by the overlap between elements of memory and theater.

They are both ephemeral. When we remember and event, we are remembering the last time we thought about it. The only true memory is the one created at the time of the actual event. Theater lives in a similar container. The play is only truly that play, on that evening, with that audience.

This is also true of rehearsal. We want to create a new memory in the moment each time we attack a scene. The first time a discovery is made, an electric current ripples through the room (or at least that’s how I visualize it). We can’t chase this feeling. We kill a moment when we try to recreate it. If we do this regularly, we are getting farther and farther away from the essential thing. It’s like remembering an event over and over again and getting farther and farther away from it.

At the same time, we don’t only want to create new moments. We rehearse a play for weeks – sometimes months – finding, tweaking, and solidifying choices as we go in order to have a chance at giving the audience a moment that transcends these choices into something bigger.

When I think back to the plays that changed my life, I can’t tell you exactly what about those experiences changed me. For instance, David Cromer’s Our Town was a seminal experience for me. I can tell you about the [spoiler alert] the reveal of the realistic home from behind an unassuming curtain upstage, the smell and sound of bacon sizzling on a stove, the realistic sunlight delicately streaming through the window, but it would be impossible for me to articulate why all of these choices had such a big impact on me. I forget the details of my life at that point, but whatever was going on, I needed to see that play at that moment.

It now exists as a feeling in me. A distant memory of a moment where theater made me feel like my heart was expanding.

I believe impactful moments of theater don’t only live in our minds, but in our bones as well. They seep into our cells and hide out in the deep, dark spaces. It is in these places that they work on us; helping to guide and shape us as we go through life.

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Photo by Betina La Plante

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