Saturday, March 10, 2018

God Save the Queen E

Memory operates on the power of association. As Proust wrote, certain familiar sounds, smells, images, or tastes evoke lost times for us.

Outside stimuli can alter those associations without our being aware of it. Scientists and sociologists measure the priming effect of particular types of stimuli on our brains, and how they affect the mental processes governing implicit bias, altruism, mating behavior, and tribal conflict. 

I’m also interested in the opposite phenomenon, which I call Neuro-Impressionism: what thoughts would come into your mind if you were freed not only from external priming, but also from the general fog of cognitive and emotional fallacies? For example, without any priming other than the location itself, what memory or memories are associated with each of the important places in our lives?

Physical locations trigger particularly powerful memories for me. The result can be intensely unpleasant. Whenever I went back to Utah after attending high school and college there, I experienced painful knots in my stomach almost everywhere I visited. I haven’t tried returning since Eleanor was a baby, and Seattle Men’s Chorus toured the Rocky Mountain States.

However, it’s not just PTSD, and it’s not just painful or negative memories. Every significant location in my life is associated with a particular impression or experience. Let’s examine a very specific place: Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, named for its royal patron on the occasion of her 1959 visit to the newly-built performance complex.

The show I saw most recently at the Queen E was the Broadway-Across-Canada tour of Wicked, resulting in my one of my strongest impressions associated with the place. 

Other than attending Wicked and Drowsy Chaperone in recent years, however, most of my encounters with the Queen E were before we moved to the States. I would have been less than thirteen years old. Each experience involved the kind of parenting I’ve tried to follow with my children. No doubt my own parents will remember more occasions from that era, but here’s what I recall without prompting:

Victor Borge, who was a Danish-American comedic classical musician. Reading about his act just now on Wikipedia brought back specific examples of his shtick, including “Phonetic Punctuation, in which he read a passage from a book and added exaggerated sound effects to stand for all of the punctuation marks, such as periods, commas, and exclamation marks.”

Bob McGrath, whose name I just looked up on Wikipedia. (My original notes for this essay called him “nice gayish guy from Sesame Street.”) Bob had a touring musical variety show, like you used to see on TV.

Saturday’s Warrior. I intend to write separately about this 1973 Mormon musical by composer Lex de Azevedo. Imagine if Donny and Marie Osmond combined Jesus Christ Superstar and The Book of Mormon into a wholesome afterschool special with dubious theology. This is one of those ur-texts I could mine endlessly, for both comic and abnormal psychology purposes. Be afraid.

I love Wicked. My brain therefore intensely cross references the musical with all three locations where I’ve seen the show performed. (That doesn’t count the many times I’ve sung or heard songs from the show, let alone how the musical fits into the tangled web of other associations in my life – from Judy Garland, to Seattle Men’s Chorus guest artists, to encounters with Tony-snubbed composer Stephen Schwartz, to adaptations of other novels by gay authors.)

Seeing Wicked in Vancouver at the Queen E was particularly magical because it was Eleanor’s ninth birthday present. We took the train from Seattle, riding along the coast on a beautiful spring day. We circled Stanley Park taking pictures. We bought a souvenir tee shirt, now framed and hanging on her bedroom wall with mementos from other shows she’s seen or performed in.

Every day, our brains translate our experiences into an increasingly complex tapestry of association. That’s actually how each individual neuron works, branching out to connect with numerous other cells all over the brain.

But back to my top neuro-impression for the Queen E. Actually, there are two. The first is associated with the back side of the building. Behind the 2929-seat main auditorium is the more intimate Vancouver Playhouse. The only play I’ve seen there was a delightful production of The Drowsy Chaperone, on a fun snowy date weekend with my ex. But that’s not my association.

As I wrote in my essay about sexual orientation, Fifty Shades of Green Gables, I’ve had a lifelong crush on Gilbert Blythe, particularly as portrayed by gay Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie in the iconic television production of Anne of Green Gables. When Crombie died unexpectedly at age 48 a few years ago, Facebook helpfully read my mind and forwarded me a copy of his obituary. I read that Crombie’s most recent professional success was in Drowsy Chaperone. Not the production we actually saw at the Vancouver Playhouse, unfortunately. But the association was so powerful that I can no longer think of Drowsy Chaperone without immediately recalling Crombie as Gilbert. And I cannot drive or walk by the north side of the Queen E without thinking of him.

The front side of the Queen E doesn’t make me think of Gilbert Blythe, or Saturdays Warriors, or Victor Borge, or even Eleanor’s ninth birthday Amtrak-and-Wicked trip. Instead, it reminds me of the first “real play” I remember: my parents took me to the old non-musical version of Anne of Green Gables. I’ve been enchanted with theater and with Anne ever since.

Apparently my brain really is bisexual.

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