My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!
The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)
In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:
I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.
Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.
I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.
I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!”
And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.
I was very pleased to be in the audience last night to catch one performance of the short run – just 4 performances – of the British theatre company Complicite’s visit to Ann Arbor. This was a return engagement to this company for me, as I saw a previous (and also Japanese themed work) of theirs in 2004 in London, plus another more classically themed piece that year, and had the good fortune of working with an early troupe member in a physical theatre class that fall.
I’m also interested to note that this performance is a long running hit of sorts for Complicite, having first been seen in 2009 and (presumably, based on the photos) featuring most of the same actors in the current run. Ann Arbor is one of only three US stops for this tour.
The show itself was classic Complicite, using light, sound, bold imagery and subtle movement (and many other things) to tell the story of Shun-kin, a privleged Japanese woman who becomes entangled with her student, Sasuke, in multiple ways. I don’t want to spell the basic plot out further, except to note that it was inspired by a Japanese folktale and bookended, in a way, by contemporary scenes featuring a female narrator recounting the story for a radio broadcast. The modern angle could have been used just as a framing device, but instead it recurred throughout the story, most intriguingly taking center stage at what would be an intermission point – but there was no intermission and the story went right on.
Complicite is known for their technical virtuosity and this production was no slouch in that department. However, at times I questioned the decision to have subtitles displayed right alongside the staging of the performance. It’s true that there was no other way to handle it, where the actors spoke in Japanese, but the decision forced me to divide my attention between the acting onstage and the subtitles of the story displayed on both sides and above the stage area. A bolder (but unlikely) choice would have been to have no subtitles displayed at all and force the audience member to engage with the production through other senses.
I’m losing my train of thought, so should probably stop here, but in concluson, this was one of the most memorable theatre productions I’ve seen in the last couple of years, simply by engaging with style and energy into an unusual story that held me riveted with attention and impressed with the level of detailed storytelling it was happy to unspool for a deserving audience.