Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Reality Isn't

I think the happiest moments of my life have been when reality is the most unreal. As I try to call up some examples, I'm almost swept away by them: my first "love affair," in junior high; soaring, all by myself, through a valley lined by whipped-cream clouds while in the NavCads; having a beer and a pizza with fellow NavCad Harry Harrison on the beach at Pensacola while "Unchained Melody" played on the jukebox; seeing the Rock of Gibraltar emerge through the daybreak fog as the USS Ticonderoga entered the Mediterranean on my 22nd birthday; that magical week in Cannes in July of 1956 and my return to the same places 55 years later; my first truly romantic kiss with a beautiful college classmate in a car parked behind a grain silo near Sycamore, Illinois.

My entire life, I've used my vivid imagination to protect myself from the harshness of reality. My earliest escapes from reality were, as with all children, through play, either alone or with friends ("Let's pretend like...") and, when I leaned to read, through books. Ironically, I was a voracious reader up until the time I began writing my own books.

Books provide perhaps the most intimate form of escape from reality. They rely totally on the reader's mind to convey their power. Radio, and later TV, provided flip-of-a-switch, turn-of-the-dial, any-time escape from reality. But while movies and TV add the dimensions of sight and sound to the unreality, they do so to the great detriment of imagination...if you can see and hear what's going on, you don't have to use your mind to do it for you. (The switch from radio to television was very hard on the careers of many radio personalities--Amos and Andy being the primary example--when their long-time fans realized that the characters they had created in their minds were totally different from the ones on the TV screen.)

But it is the experience of live theatre, of being in the same room (albeit usually a very large room) watching real people suspending reality in real time which, for me, holds a special fascination. How many countless hours of sheer, soul-soaring wonder and beauty have I spent sitting in a darkened theater watching reality-that-isn't unfold on the stage in front of me?

I think I had my first exposure to the theater when I played Raggedy Andy in a third-grade school production of Raggedy Ann. My only real memory of it is having my dad ask, after the performance, "Did your voice have to be that high?"

I can't recall, exactly, when I saw my first professional production...possibly while still in high school, with my mother. But I definitely remember going with a group of friends during my freshman year in college to see New Faces of 1952. But it probably wasn't until I went to New York in 1953 with my classmates/friends Stu and Zane during the break between my freshman and sophomore years, that confirmed my addiction.

The first show I saw on Broadway was during that trip: Rogers and Hammerstein's Me and Juliet, which used Rogers' score from the popular TV show, "Victory at Sea." From that moment, there was no turning back, and I'm sure I've seen well over 100 stage productions since them.

Probably not surprisingly, I strongly favor musicals--I know, I know: how gay can you get?--over non-musicals, simply because musicals take non-reality to another level, and almost inevitably have the one thing I require from any escape from reality: a happy ending (though my very favorite musical is Man of La Mancha, the lack of a "happy" ending being offset by its emotional power and its message of hope). And of course the primary exception is Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake--a ballet with an ending that still brings me to tears, which perfectly balances beauty and heartbreak.

We all need to escape from the prison cell of reality every now and again, and imagination is the key to set us free. It's right there, in the lock, and all we have to do is use it.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

My mother used to enjoy going to see plays/musicals. I still remember when she took me to see a couple of shows at the local college campus. That may have been what got me interested in theater, which I did from 7th grade until my senior year of high school.

Going on stage used to scare the living hell out of me, but once I started, I'd be fine until the curtain closed.

I do love reading your stories, D. First kiss...trips...keep em' coming.