We’ve been documenting our theatre productions on video for a long time, at least thirty-five years. Eventually our theatre was able to upgrade our equipment and we got ourselves a new SVHS camcorder, a significant bump in quality from the plain old VHS tapes we’d been making. From then until the lurch into digital camcorders, all our archive tapes were on SVHS. Lotta shows.
Once we graduated into the world of mini-DV and making our own DVD’s, we started a slow process of dubbing our old tapes onto digital media, relying on our old SVHS camera as a playback source. (SVHS won’t play on a regular garden-variety video deck.) We didn’t move fast enough, though, because recently our SVHS camera went belly-up. All those wonderful productions lost? No way to transfer them without spending thousands of bucks at an AV service?
God bless eBay. I found an old fancy editing deck of the same make as our now-deceased camera, quite cheap (what would a sane person do with it nowadays?) and actually made it work. I hooked it up to our flat-screen, and Conrad scanned through multiple tapes to select the best performances of each show. Wow, ready to rock and roll.
Not. This is an old analog unit that hooks up with a coax cable, this thing you saw on your granny’s TV with a little pin in the middle. If you’ve got a digital camcorder and want to play it on an old TV, you can get a converter that accepts the yellow/white/red from the digital unit and puts the signal out on the other side as analog. However, it’s one way only: can’t go from analog to digital.
I spent all day today running back and forth to what used to be the Radio Shack, getting an array of converters and couplers and adapters, getting no results, reading the manual for the old SVHS deck and the manual for the mini-DV camcorder, taking a break to cook dinner, then fighting the urge to burst into tears. I even dug up the old empty case from the dead SVHS camcorder, and found one lonely coiled cable inside it. Funny-looking connectors, unfamiliar to me.
Then a distant bell rang. The old camcorder had an alternate dubbing output called S-video, and this playback deck was the same make and vintage. Sure enough, it had an S-video output, and the cable fit. Maybe I could find a sex change that would allow it to have relations with the DV. Looking at the DV manual, I found that, lo and behold, hidden below the normal jacks was an S-video jack!
Yes, Virginia, sometimes geezer equipment CAN get it on with sprightly young things. And right now, as I write this, we’re dubbing our Waiting for Godot from the vintage year of 1983, with CB as Vladimir, Tom Roy as Estragon, and Eli Bishop as The Boy. And I am thanking my tired and gnarly brain for its demon persistence and ability to navigate a labyrinth.
I once heard the story of a man I knew only slightly, a puppeteer, who had a large gathering of friends for his fortieth birthday. He and his mate showed slides of shows they’d done over the course of their career. Knowing puppeteers, it must have been quite an emotional experience—there’s something intensely paternal that emanates from creatures you’ve designed, built and animated over the years. The man then went into his bedroom, lay down and died.
This comes to mind whenever I have occasion to revisit old shows—sorting photos, organizing scripts, dubbing videos. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for theatre artists who rehearse a show 3-5 weeks, run it a month or so, and then on to the next. For us, a new project is a pregnancy, evolves over the same length of time, and then, if it’s born alive, it’s with us anywhere from six months to three years to fifteen. It’s your baby, and you hope the world will love it the way you do. But at the same time, you’re as aware of its weaknesses, its failings, its recalcitrant temperament, as if it were your teenage kid. And it’s hell to let go.
So going back through time, as I’ve been doing this week, in the long multistage process of dubbing archive videos onto DVD, there’s a great mix of emotions. The people I worked with, the work, the audience, the critics, the elation, the despair—not that much, to be honest, comes back, but enough to make it live. Loveplay, Godot, Summer Sisters, Marie Antoinette, Macbeth, Mine Alone, Dessie, Winter’s Tale, Full Hookup, Long Shadow, and more, more, more. Now they’re shadows on a screen.
It’s a blessing to have video, and a curse. It looks at the show with my director’s eye: cool, objective, analytic. What’s lost is presence. It’s a trapeze act as seen on TV: no danger, no breath, no smell. And under it all, the fact that it’s dead.
A week ago, we had occasion to watch our video of a 1983 production of Waiting for Godot in Lancaster, PA. We had houseguests, friends from New York, and Moshe had recently directed a Yiddish staging of Godot, Beate had seen my earlier college production of it, and they asked to see ours. I hadn’t seen it for thirty years. Our friends were effusive in response. Indeed, it worked. And I managed, for the most part, not to take directorial notes. I wouldn’t really have a chance to give notes.
And seeing our son, in the role of the Boy, as a child. Oh ye gods. And Tom Roy is an old guy now, like me.
Still, as I accumulate these signs of mortality, that great vanishing, I understand whiskey better. Aging mellows me. I can only get truly angry at computers and other non-sentient objects—that includes politicians, of course—but otherwise I can picnic pretty happily despite the gnats. The mellowing, though, brings with it an intensification. The taste comes out more fully. You drink it to taste it.
And like all whiskey, whatever its quality, it all gets drunk up.