...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

November 15, 2006

Wednesday Is Poetry Day

[A special guest post by Sheila from The Sheila Variations]

Annika asked me to write an introduction today to Petula Clark's poem, "The Theatre." I immediately thought of her best known song, "Downtown" of course. Petula Clark is one of the most successful female artists of all time, just in terms of the number of hits she has had. After "Downtown", she had 15 consecutive Top 40 hits. That's insane. To me, it feels like she has always been there.

But I also thought about my aunt - who was in the Broadway show Blood Brothers with Petula, and understudied Petula's part. This was a big deal for my aunt, who had been in the business for years, but was making her Broadway debut in Blood Brothers. The entire O'Malley clan, the crowd of nieces and nephews, all flocked to New York to see my aunt on Broadway. Most of us are in the theatre as well, actors, directors, writers. We knew that the whole "one big break" thing is kind of a myth, that it often takes a couple of little breaks to lead to the REALLY big break, but still, it was very exciting to go see her.

We sat in the darkened theatre, and Petula was the lead, of course, and she was fantastic (great recording, by the way, if you like Petula Clark. It's definitely worth listening to) - but all we could see was our aunt, in her smaller part. Petula Smetula. LOOK AT OUR AUNT ON BROADWAY. If our aunt had a funny line, we all HOWLED with laughter. When our aunt made an entrance we all gripped hands together. Afterwards, we went backstage - there were about 15 of us - ranging in age from 25 to 7 years old (you know, Irish Catholic family). And there was Petula Clark. What I remember now, and what came up for me when Annika asked me to write this piece today - is how sweet she was to all of us, and also - how much she GOT that we were there for our AUNT, not for her. Ms. Clark put her arm around my aunt, and said to all of us, grinning, "Isn't she just marvelous?" It was like she was just another member of the ensemble. She's Petula freakin' Clark! But she also somehow understood that this was a big moment for my aunt, and she was supportive and cool about it. I always liked her for that. Another star would have sniffed at all the little kids clamoring backstage to see a cast member other than her! But Petula Clark just stood there, enjoying my aunt's success vicariously.

Enough about that. Annika sent me the poem below and I'll just say one or two quick things about it. It's obviously not a very good poem, just in terms of language or form. It's not T.S. Eliot. But I found it strangely touching, because of its sincerity. It doesn't have any pretension (which is more than you can say for a lot of poetry!) It is honest. Perhaps I can relate to it because I grew up in a theatrical family, and I am an actress myself. She is speaking about my life, about something that is important to me.

The Theatre

Yes, the theatre.
It's a funny thing, the theatre, when you stop and think of it.
The comedy, the drama, the striving for a "hit".
The idea of an audience and an actor up on stage.
Don't you think it's rather funny watching someone earn his wage?

There's something about the theatre and I'm not sure what it is.
It's surely not the money or the thing they call "show biz."
We hear about the magic of the theatre,
fantasy quite unlike the movies or the telly. I agree.

I love going to the theatre, sitting right there, where you are
watching my favorite actors or the birth of a new star.
All those special evenings with Lloyd-Webber or the Bard,
something old from whoever, a new play by Tom Stoppard,
And the music of the theatre, Bernstein, Hammerstein, Sondheim are so devine
that sometimes I wish they'd never end.

The best way to go to the theatre is right there through the stage door.
I leave the world behind me like a mantle on the floor.
And oh the sweet relief to know that at least for the next few hours
I'll know the plot and in these times that's quite a lot.
And everybody knows their lines and who they are and where they stand. It's grand.

Unlike the world outside these doors, the homeless that the world ignores,
the violence, the poverty, the things we cannot help but see,
including our own inadequacies to somehow make it right.
I can't forget the things I've seen and all the places I've been.
I can't forget, they haunt me yet.
The millions of refugees and my anger will not let me sleep
and when my grief becomes too deep, I sing.

Yeah, I sing.
I sing along with friends, we sing and try to make amends.
We beg for money on the stage, we smile and try to hide our rage.
We try to help.
I know that you do too.
Most of us do.

So here we are in this hallowed place, sharing a special time and space.
I hadn't realized before, but maybe that's what the theatre is for,
to bring us together, to make us see that the magic is not just some fantasy
tho' we all need some fantasy.
No, the magic you see is in you, in me.
It's a funny thing, the theatre.

[Petula Clark 1998]

I loved this part:
And oh the sweet relief to know that at least for the next few hours
I'll know the plot and in these times that's quite a lot.
And everybody knows their lines and who they are and where they stand.
It's grand.
That made me smile. There have been times when everything in my "real" life is absolutely insane - someone's breaking up with me, I have financial problems, I'm moving, my cat died, whatever ... and yet I get to go to the theatre every night and get a brief respite from the chaos. I get to go to a place where I know the plot, and I can fit myself into it, and not worry about how things will turn out, because somebody else has written the lines that I need to say. To my friends who are not actors, the thought of being onstage in front of people is so stressful that they cannot believe I would find that to be a place where I DON'T have to worry ... but that's the paradox, and actors understand that weirdness. It's a funny thing.

And I'll just close with this. I told Annika in an email that I really liked this section of the poem, and I found it strangely moving, even though it makes me feel like a goofball:

Yeah, I sing.
I sing along with friends, we sing and try to make amends.
We beg for money on the stage, we smile and try to hide our rage.
We try to help.
I know that you do too.
Most of us do.
It's simply said, and perhaps it's not all that poetic, but I like it because it is not self-important ... but we all have things that we DO in life. And you must not dis your gift, or downplay it. If you have a gift, you must use it. She has a gift of a voice. So she uses it. It's not the biggest gift in the world, it won't change anything, and - oh yeah - she gets paid for it! She's not volunteering her time. This is her JOB. And so all she can do is do her job, and hope that it helps ... but even if it doesn't, she still has to do it. Sing with her friends, beg for money on the stage, and try to help. I like that attitude. It is not surprising to me that she is as successful as she is. She's a workhorse. I know a lot of successful people. I know a lot of successful actors. They are not people who have more talent. They are people who WORK.

I have also experienced that, for the most part (not always, but for the most part) - those who are the most talented and most successful are also the most generous. This is not always the case, but more often than not, it is.

And that's what I think of when I think of Petula Clark's beautiful smiling face, backstage, as she hugged my aunt with one arm, and beamed at all the O'Malley faces smiling up at her.

Posted by annika, Nov. 15, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: Poetry


How can you not beam at a bunch smilin Irish faces? :) Nice post!

Posted by: Scof on Nov. 15, 2006

nice post Sheila.

Posted by: gcotharn on Nov. 15, 2006

I agree: Technically, the poem leaves a little something to be desired. But if it speaks to you--then it's not really that bad a poem.

Delightful post, Sheila.

Posted by: Victor on Nov. 16, 2006