When I first began reviewing theater about 10 years ago, I tried to recruit at least one theater companion to accompany me to each show. After all, I often had an extra ticket and it seemed like a special treat to be able to share with friends and family.
But I had trouble rounding up cohorts to go with me. Schedules didn’t jibe or folks just weren’t interested in whatever play du jour I was plugging.
So I started going alone.
At first, I admit, I felt just the tiniest bit sorry for myself. Theater is communal and it is natural to want to share compelling (or awful) experiences with others. I noticed groups of friends or couples jovially mingling before opening night shows as I wove furtively among the crowds and darted toward my lone seat.
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After a while, attending plays alone became my default mode of theater-going, and on the rare occasions when others joined me I felt like my attention was divided between the show and my guest. My eyes and mind were focused on the stage, but peripherally, I was continually assessing my companion’s level of enjoyment.
After these shows, I felt deprived of the solitude of wonder and reflection that I usually enjoy for hours after the curtain falls. I realized that these solitary ruminations had become key to my reviewing process. What’s more, I discovered that attending shows alone was no longer merely a professional requirement but a personal luxury.
Over the years, it has grown to become a radical act of self-care. Through ups and downs, breakups and births, in snow and rain and mosquito-laden summers, attending theater alone has become a reliable refuge, the bass line to the music of my life.
I have walked to the theater when my car wouldn’t start. I have nursed a baby in the backseat of my mother’s car at intermission. I have walked into the theater angry and left laughing. I have walked in numb and left alive. I have gone to the theater when it was the absolute last thing I felt like doing.
No matter the inner or outer state of my life, the ceremonies and rituals of the theater provide a deeply comforting rhythm as well as a safe space for me to explore what it means to be a human being.
It may seem contradictory, but attending theater alone makes me feel less alone. I enjoy sensing my fellow audience members’ moods and reactions, but it is even more enjoyable because of the complete freedom to fully embrace my own private experience as well, whether that means crying more or laughing less than I would if I attended as a pair or group.
Part of the magic of theater is that attending alone does not diminish the sense of temporary togetherness shared by the audience. In that way, theater remains a powerfully communal experience for me, even though it is a solo affair.
Perhaps most importantly, for me, is how the inner noise of quotidian life is quietened at the theater, and even more so when attending alone. Did I remember to put the cold pack for my son’s lunchbox in the freezer? Is the electric bill due tomorrow? Have I replied to that important email yet?
For two hours, none of that matters.
Only the story on stage matters and that story — if it does its job — will help me practice some aspect of being human that I can then take back to my everyday life. Or as renowned French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine put it, “You should go out of the theatre stronger and more human than when you went in.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.