As a teenager in the 1970s, I once read about a communal theater company, in France I think, that not only acted together but took all meals together: it was a requirement. I can't imagine such a regimen being imposed on a Broadway company, given the fact that the actors usually come together for a specific project, and are not part of a full-time troupe. This thought occurred to me one afternoon this week, as I was sitting in the Lyceum orchestra section observing a technical rehearsal; "The Nance" has been in such run-throughs since Tuesday, March 12, preliminary to a first preview on Thursday, March 21.
Normal activity flowed through the house: John Lee Beatty, the set designer, was checking on the design and functioning of a door; a dresser was consulting with an actor about a costume's fit; another actor was talking to the choreographer about a bit of movement. Minutes later, a scene was run, and at its conclusion most of "The Nance"'s ensemble, in 1937 garb, sat around a table onstage waiting for a cue to be set. They were about to tuck into a meal of scrambled eggs, with the additional bonus - a bit of a luxury during the Depression, for low-paid burlesque performers - of bacon.
As I observed this communal meal, I glanced around the orchestra area, where worktables were set up over the seats: director here, lighting team there, musicians to the side, and so on. At almost every one of these stations, food could be seen. At this table, someone was eating a lunch wrap; next door, dried fruit was being consumed; nearby, the remnants of a bagel had been noshed upon, after perhaps being found at the breakfast table in the backstage basement. I am pleased to report that no one had brought fried or overly aromatic food for lunch. The Lyceum is a much less confined space than, say, a subway car, where the entry of someone with McDonald's or Chinese is generally unwelcome: for the hungry, it's a reminder of what they don't have; for the well-fed, it's a reminder of what they don't want. Nonetheless, food odors can be a distraction to people, who, whatever the casualness of eating may suggest, are engaged in work requiring steady focus, not a trans-fat headache.
I suppose I could conclude this blog entry by saying that the table onstage represented the cohesive America of days gone by, in which families, whether at home or at work, ate together. And that the scattered diners in the orchestra stood for our more atomistic age, in which we all pursue our separate paths. But at the theater my thoughts were much more culinary than cultural: how the advent of refrigeration meant that delicacies could now be packaged to go; how the advance in transport brought foods from all over the world to the dairy freezer of the local deli; how "vegetarian" in 1937 would have been exotic not relatively common. In sum, I thought about what a greater variety of take-out choices an actor in 2013 would have in the theater district compared to an actor in 1937. Would you like some artisanal arugula on that bacon-and-egg sandwich, sir?
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com