The Play That Changed My Life: Gail Burns
Editors Note: “The Play that Changed My Life” series came from an idea Patrick White developed in collaboration with Nippertown, InPlay, and the local theater community to share memories of life altering theater experiences.
Contributed by Gail Burns
When I was a child I didn’t like going to the theatre. I mean I REALLY didn’t like going to the theatre, once staging a sit down strike outside of the 4th grade production of “Snow White” because I knew it was going to be too scary for me and therefore I refused to enter the performance space, even after it was proven to me that the evil witch was just Janie Feldman’s big sister, DeeDee.
So how did I morph from that 6-year-old into a theatre critic who obsessively attended nearly 100 productions a year? I accepted a two-fer to see a matinee of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the St. James Theatre one Wednesday in 1972. This was a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s seldom performed and rather uninteresting comedy, with music by Galt MacDermot (“Hair”) and lyrics by John Guare. It won the Tony for Best Musical and promptly vanished into oblivion.
I was 15 at the time and had just written and staged my first play the summer before. I remember sitting at the edge of an audience level with brass railings in front of me and dangling my legs over, being very silly and daring in my acid yellow mini-dress (really just a vest long enough to cover the essentials) with matching purple tights and ruffled blouse. I may have also been wearing my yellow platform shoes with the six-inch heels. In any event, I was with my best friend and we were being ludicrously adolescent and “mod.”
Everything about that production was just magic for me – the music, the staging, the performers, the lyrics. I learned every word of every song. I fell instantly and madly in love with Raul Julia and subsequently saw him in Richard Foreman’s staging of “The Threepenny Opera” at the Vivian Beaumont, and Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” both of which also had a profound impact on me.
Almost immediately after seeing “Two Gentlemen” I wrote and staged the first of my five musicals, thrilling experiences that taught me so much and enabled me to grow from that terrified little girl into the semi-confident woman I am today. I literally cannot imagine what my life would have been like, what paths it might have taken, if I hadn’t attended taken that two-fer. I would have been someone else, and I am not at all sure I would have liked her.
Many decades later I had a chance to meet John Guare and hold out my tattered script/score of “Two Gentlemen” for an autograph. I said, “This show made me fall in love with the theatre.” And he signed it “Still in love with the theatre. Aren’t we lucky?”