Joseph E. Boling keeps a large, white safe—large enough to double as a sarcophagus—in his basement, a 40-minute drive south of Seattle if the traffic is light. He tells the movers, who are packing his things to move to Indianapolis, that it weighs 4,000 pounds when empty. Currently, the safe is full of rare coins, medals, bills, and bonds. Boling is a numismatist, a student of money, author of two books on the subject and editor of four. He began his avocation in numismatics during his army career: A Vietnam veteran, Boling was involuntarily discharged during the military drawdown after the first Gulf War, just two years away from his 30-year retirement benefits. He is, in his words, "a rock-ribbed Republican" but "cannot support" President Bush. Boling is a graying man who wears glasses and button-up shirts and has a slight paunch. He speaks deliberately, with a slight drawl, and answers the phone: "Hello, Boling." According to his calculations, he sleeps an average of five hours and 14 minutes per night. He keeps impeccable records.
Those records also document the growth of a theater addict. Boling became interested in theater during his last army tour, in Heidelberg, Germany, where he worked with an amateur American theater company and "got the monkey on my back." He moved to Seattle in 1993, after his army discharge. In 1994, Boling saw 22 plays. In 1996, he saw 29. Then, in 1998, the number grew to 135. "I discovered Capitol Hill," he said. "I had been going to the opera, ACT. I went to the TPS [Theatre Puget Sound] conference in the fall of 1998 and found all these little companies. I realized I could go to theater seven days a week."
But why? Why would he—why would anyone—want to sit in a theater seven nights a week? "I have the collector's personality, obsessive-compulsive," he said. "I've never been diagnosed. But I'm a pack rat." He gestured around his basement, neat but cramped: his library of books on Japan, theater, and numismatics; shelves of DVDs and laserdiscs; filing cabinets, one of them devoted to theater programs and clippings of reviews of productions he's seen; and the enormous white safe. "I don't just collect coins and bills; I collect theatrical experiences."
In 2002, Boling attended 427 theatrical productions, 8.2 per week. He routinely sees four shows on Saturdays. "You can do five, actually," he said, counting on his fingers. "A touring children's show at noon, a two o'clock matinee, a show at the Children's Theater at 5:30, a regular production at eight, then a late-night show." He writes reviews about almost everything he sees, posting them on the TPS website.
Boling calls his theater writing "commentary," not criticism. "I don't know the history of scripts and directors. I'm trained as a metallurgist"—he graduated from MIT in 1964—"and a computer weenie." His first post was in November 1998, about a Beckett production. "It was the first time I'd seen Beckett," he said. "And I left really pissed off, muttering about audience abuse." The play needled him for days, until he posted something on the TPS site. His review includes the line: "Inexplicable starts and stops... left me feeling that the playwright must be mentally ill." In January of 1999, he wrote his second review, of Steel Magnolias. "They handed out tissues in the program—and they were needed! It was a really good performance. I put that up and thought, 'Well, shit. I'm seeing so many shows a year, I should start posting about what I've seen.'" An obsession was born.
Boling buys all his own tickets—nearly $9,000 a year, according the tax records he pulled up on his computer—and donates large sums to theaters and other nonprofits. His habit has, in part, caused him to "run up tremendous debt on plastic. I just need to be more disciplined about not giving money away." Boling resolved part of his debt by selling large portions of his numismatics collection, including 3,500 pieces of Japanese bonds and shares, on auction in Hong Kong.
After a farewell party on September 3, Boling will head east. His wife—to whom he was married for 20 years, then divorced for 20 years, and has recently remarried—lives in Ohio and bought a house for them in Indianapolis, close to their children. He is already feeling theater withdrawal. "My wife has season tickets to the Toledo Rep," he said, smiling. "But she doesn't have the obsession that I do."firstname.lastname@example.org