Puss in Boots, Summer Stock, and Processing the Theatre Experience

By Janelle Reinelt

The AHRC research project we are currently running asks people to tell us how they ‘process’ their experiences of being at the theatre. As I process the research work, it is impossible not to review my own theatre-going history. I have been surprised by the extent and number of my memories as I assumed most would have disappeared into the proverbial sands of time. But instead, other people’s reminiscences have acted to catalyze mine—rather like Proust’s famous madeleine that unlocked the taste, texture and smell of a beloved morsel of childhood food.

In my case, I think the earliest performance I attended took place when I was around four. It was Puss in Boots, the ballet, probably produced by the San Francisco Ballet although I can’t be certain. What I do know is that so intense was my pleasure and immersion in the show that I immediately created an invisible feline friend for my own life, and talked to him and treated him as real for a very long time after. This might be a typical reaction of only child, which I was, and it signaled the role theatre and performance would play in my solitary childhood—it helped me survive. Along with reading novels, the theatre gave me a chance for vicarious and imaginative experiences that were intense, interesting, and beautiful.

When I was thirteen, I was able to participate in a summer theatre program at my secondary school. The shows we put on that summer (1960) were The Reluctant Debutante, The Glass Menagerie, Sabrina Fair, and Damn Yankees. I had a small part in The Reluctant Debutante which I remember not at all, and was in thrall to the older actors who I thought were brilliant in The Glass Menagerie. I can still hear Ann Lindzey as Amanda saying ‘Rise and shine. Rise and shine. Laura, tell your brother to rise and shine’ and the response, coming from Bob McCollar as Tom, ‘I’ll rise but I won’t shine!’ –-a line that became a part my personal repertory of teen-aged expressions!  What stayed was the cadence and music of delivery, the slight drawl of a Southern accent (probably a travesty!) that remained with me and marks the memory. When the girl who was slated to play Sabrina moved away with her family quite suddenly, I found myself cast as Sabrina. I had already seen and loved Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, the 1957 movie about the fashion world, so I was overwhelmed by my good fortune to mimic my ideal movie star in a stage play she made famous on film. But the character of Sabrina too—a lonely daughter of a single-parent chauffeur—allowed my own identity some scope for fictional expansion. And I must say, after all these years, I still remember my big speech. It finished with something like:

‘I want to be in the world, and of the world, and never just stand aside and watch’. It seemed to me then, and for much of my life, that these words summed up my own aspirations. And although being an academic might be said to involve a fair amount of standing aside and watching, mostly I have lived my life in and of the world.

We called that summer theatre programme ‘summer stock’, and it was as rank and amateur as you might imagine a small town high school summer season to be. Yet it took me a long way toward making my peace with adolescence and my own yearnings. It kept me sane; it gave me friends, my first real friends who shared something important with me. Recently, more than fifty years after that summer, I was contacted by someone who had been a part of that time. Mike had played Applegate in Damn Yankees (I had a chorus part) and the theatre had been an anchor and a place of belonging for him as it was for me. We found ourselves with our respective partners in London trading stories of shows we’d seen and loved over the years. He isn’t a performer anymore either; like me, he went in another direction somewhat related to theatre (in his case, into law). But he attends the theatre regularly in New York and Washington D.C. where he lives. We go to see different things now—he still loves Broadway musicals and comedies; I like ‘serious’ dramas and political theatre. But we both still love it with a passion which is partly to do with the foundational experiences of our early years and the imaginative possibilities it brought to both of our small-town lives as youngsters growing up in the early 1960s.

When the current public debates about the value of the arts reach my years, I want to say something melodramatic like ‘people need theatre –it saves their lives’. I can’t say that without sounding somewhat hysterical, but I can share how it happened to be the case with my life and some others I know.

Janelle Reinelt is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick and a member of the British Theatre Consortium.