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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

OUR TOWN — it’s not as easy as you might have thought.


WARNING:  This post has very little to do with bodybuilding and fitness. It is more of a meandering story of an incident in my life and my thoughts about it. If you are vaguely interested in me, feel free to read on, if not my next post will be on my “Top Ten Waste of Fucking Time Exercises”, and will be more to your taste, I suggest you wait for that. ——————————————————— A few months ago my wife Suzy and I, with our friends Sally and Mike (shit bodybuilder), went to see a production of Our Town, at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It was a memorable evening for many reasons, not the least of which was that I acted in a production of the play more than 30 years ago in South Africa. I was fascinated by my reaction to it now as a middle aged man, as opposed to how I reacted, or more accurately how I didn’t react to it, as a teenager. Our Town is a play that shares the idea that we live life without really appreciating what it has to offer. In the play, once we die, and are able to see what we had, it is really too late. Major themes of the play include mortality, appreciating life, companionship and marriage, love, and the circle of life. A landmark in American drama, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town tells the story of a small town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in order to tell us the story of every town, the whole world over. We follow the Gibbs and Webb families, residents of Grover’s Corners, through twelve years of life changes -- from the mundane in Act I, “Daily Life,” to the romantic in Act II, “Love and Marriage,” to the devastating in Act III, “Death and Eternity.” Through the young lovers Emily and George, their strong and loving parents, and the many other Grover’s Corners’ locals, Wilder delivers universal truths about what it means to be human. The most moving and powerful scene is when the recently deceased Emily comes back to Earth for one day, her 12th birthday. Emily watches with happiness at being able to see her parents and some of the people of her childhood for the first time in years. However, her pleasure quickly turns to pain as she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life. The memory proves too painful for her, and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved in a production of Our Town when I was a teenager attending St John’s college in Johannesburg. Our sister school Roedean, an all-girls School that was producing the play, needed some boys to bring a better balance to the production. About half a dozen of us St John’s’ boys volunteered, and off we went to do our duty.  

Roedean School for Girls in Johannesburg.  The Roedean girls took all the major parts (male and female) and the boys filled the minor male roles. It was so long ago that I have only the haziest memories of that time, and I am not 100% sure which character I played, but I think I was Constable Warren. I am reasonably confident of this as I recognised some of his lines from so long ago when I saw the play again recently. “Simon Stimpson is rolling around a little!”, was one Constable Warren’s lines, which I delivered using an exaggerated American drawl because my best friend Oliver and I, being the immature jerks that we were, spent most of the rehearsal times messing about and not being serious at all. So much so that we were quite chastened when we made the poor young lady teacher who was producing the play, cry! We were shame faced. Actually, Ollie and I have had a few theatrical outings on stage, as St John’s was the sort of school that encouraged cultural activities alongside academic ones. Ollie and I gave the school a laugh (at our expense!) when in the annual House Play Competition, he was playing a woman, my lover, and I had to rush from one side of the stage to the other exclaiming, “Cynthia!” — and then passionately embrace. It was not a pleasant experience hugging Oliver as he was the most unlikely sort of lady, being built like, as they say, a brick shit-house, and I remember having the wind knocked out of me as we collided!! 

With my best friend, Oliver (or Cynthia.) Not very huggable, even in high heels!  Watching Our Town again after so many years was a fascinating experience. The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a magical venue, (funnily enough the last time I was there was about 30 years ago too!) and watching the play as the sun set and the natural light faded added massively to the poignancy of the evening.  

The stunning setting of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. 

There was a moment of comedy when a very big, fat pigeon landed on centre-stage, just at a moment when it was empty as the action was happening off-stage. He strutted about with his chest out, looking very important and pleased with himself, getting a very good reaction from the audience before he flapped his wings and flew off in a very superior manner. It reminded me of a memorable experience I had when I was on holiday in Cornwall with my very good friend and one-time choir master, Nick Head. (Nick has been mentioned on iamprotein before having contributed his musical wisdom in my informative “The Pause that Refreshes “ post.) It was in 1992 and Nick was over from South Africa and we decided to jump in a hire car and spend a week tootling about Cornwall. We had no plan or itinerary, and we both enjoyed the freedom that that brought. I was dieting for a competition and my energy levels would drop every few hours. “The lights would go out”, as Nick said, and we would have stop to refuel me with chicken and pasta. (Yes, I was a carb-eater in those days!!)  

The amazing Minnak Theatre in Cornwall.

One day we decided to go to the Minnak Theatre at Porthcurno, a few miles from Land's End. It is an amazing place to visit and I remember, when I saw this incredible theatre hewn out of rock on a very steep decline, feeling like an open-mouthed, ignorant and inexperienced young man from South Africa (which I was!), marvelling at just what sort of nation and people would even think of creating a theatre in such a fantastic place like this. It encapsulated everything that I admired about how eccentric and confident England was. The theatre was the brainchild of Rowena Cade, who moved to Cornwall after the First World War to build a house for herself and her mother. Her sister was the feminist dystopian author Katharine Burdekin and her partner lived with them from the 1920s  

Rowena Cade — the Minnak Theatre was her life-long passion.  In 1929, a local village group of players were staging a production of The Tempest and Rowena offered the garden of her house as a suitable location, as it was beside the sea. Rowena and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, made a terrace and rough seating, hauling materials down from the house or up via the winding path from the beach below. The Tempest was performed with the sea as a dramatic backdrop, to great success. Rowena resolved to improve the theatre, working over the course of the winter months each year throughout her life so that others might enjoy similar performances each summer. And among those many others, were Nick and I. We saw A Ship of Fools, and while it was perfectly good and entertaining, during the performance I suddenly felt a ripple of real emotion go through the audience. No one was concentrating on the players on stage, there was an excitement in the air! I looked around me and at the sea laid out below us, and with a start, I saw a huge shark out in the deep blue water! From our high-up vantage-point we could see this frightening black silhouette moving slowly and menacingly, lazily scanning the water for something to eat!! I told this story to my Regent’s Park Theatre companions, who were mightily amused by the fat pigeon, and felt proud to trump their ordinary pigeon with my deadly shark! So — back to my recent attendance of Our Town. I was already feeling quite emotional that day, but nonetheless I was surprised by how Thornton Wilder’s words and topics struck a chord with me. As we already know, the themes of the play include mortality, appreciating life, companionship and marriage, love, and the circle of life. I was taken aback by how moved I was, and was amazed that my teenage-self was obviously totally oblivious to it all as I had almost no memory of the plot and it’s subject matter. I suppose one has to have more experience of life, to have lived into middle-age, and to have gone through all it’s emotional complexities, before one can even hope see life with a better perspective. My sixteen-year-old self had very fixed ideas of how a life ought to be lived! What was right and what was wrong was very clear to me, it was black and white and non-negotiable. It takes a lifetime of not getting it quite right, compromising your principles and very often getting it completely wrong to bring you to a place of humble reality. Thornton Wilder’s play clearly brought home the realisation that my middle-aged self was not the man my sixteen-year-old self thought I would be, and this was an emotional surprise for me. I was weak and fallible, like everyone else! On the bright side, Wilder’s theme of appreciating life for all its myriad wonders and beauties (be they large one-off moments of glory or merely appreciating the everyday experiences of life), did hit home quite strongly with me and I did resolve to try enjoy and appreciate everything in my life. Here comes the bodybuilding and fitness connection! Of course, chief among these pleasures is Training and Fitness!! It is a BLESSING!! A CELEBRATION!!! And while we can still run and squat and bench press, we need to enjoy every moment of it. To feel the happiness and joy that a lifetime of fitness gives us!  


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