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It's as much a fall ritual for many of us as sending our kids back to school used to be, or preserving perfectly ripe tomatoes. With flashy brochures spread out on the table – theatre! opera! concerts! art! readings! lectures! – we choose, often with agonizing deliberation, what culture we will gorge on this fall and winter.

Audiences want to be shaken and stirred. But they also want to be part of the scene. We go to revel in La Maison Symphonique de Montreal, that city's new symphony hall, we go to be dazzled by Next To Normal now playing on Vancouver's Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, the award-winning Broadway musical about mental illness that a very experienced theatre fan I know described, after seeing it in Toronto, as "perhaps the best theatre I've seen in my life."

We go so we can tell our friends about it, but mainly we go because – simplistic as it sounds – we want our lives to be better, and art has the potential to offer us that.

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The array of cultural options where I live, in Toronto, is fantastic, not to mention completely bewildering. Will it be a modestly priced concert series at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music in their gorgeous Koerner Hall? (Check). Fabulous actor Kristen Thomson in the Canadian Stage production of Another Africa? (Absolutely.) The National Ballet's premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet? He's the Russian choreographer the New Yorker magazine recently hailed as bringing a "renewed modernism" to ballet. (Can't miss that.) Or, for that matter, the Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde exhibition, from Paris's Pompidou Centre, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Must see.)

All of this takes money and time. Something, alas, many of us are short on. So the hard part is choosing and then not second-guessing.

But what about Amelia: The Girl Who Wants to Fly, a concert version of John Gray's musical presented by Theatre 20, a cutting-edge musical theatre company devoted to established artists helping emerging ones? Or that gothic wonder, Jean Genet's The Maids, starring veteran actor Diane D'Aquila over at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre? Or Factory Theatre's remount of Bigger Than Jesus?

What we are doing here of course is placing a bet. What will enthrall us, change our world view or even just break through the stressful banality of our daily lives and entertain us for a couple of hours? What can we pass up because it might be mediocre or just a cliché? (I have friends, for instance, who walked out of Carrie Fisher's much-lauded but really badly written show, Wishful Drinking, this summer, unwilling after the first act, to squander any more time on it. I stuck it out, but felt the same way.)

I thought of this last weekend when I drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake to catch the Shaw Festival's final performance of When The Rain Stops Falling, an astonishingly good play by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell. It was in the intimate Studio Theatre and there wasn't an empty seat. No wait, there were two empty seats, which was obviously irking the woman next to me. She muttered: "This makes me crazy. Those people obviously bought tickets and are not coming, and others were begging to see the show."

When I quickly realized that my seat partner was Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival, I experienced a lurch of terror. My husband, sitting on my other side, occasionally dozes off even when he loves a play. Something about the lights in his eyes, he says. So I whispered urgently to him: "Do NOT close your eyes! Jackie Maxwell is sitting next to us!" Then, as a teaser I added, "Besides you'll love what falls from the ceiling in the first moment." "I hope it's not a chandelier," he replied.

But no worries. From its startling fish falling from the sky and riveting opening monologue by actor Ric Reid, When the Rain Stops Falling, directed by Peter Hinton, was a mesmerizing generational family drama with a terrible crime at the centre of it. What I loved most were the gorgeous, complicated statements it made about family love and how we let each other down.

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Enthralled? Disturbed? Entertained? I was all of the above. You might say it's the reason we go to live art in the first place.

In an interview in Toronto's NOW magazine, actor Kristen Thomson perfectly summed up the relevance and urgency of live art, and of course the eternal (and increasingly strident) funding debate that surrounds it, at least in this country: "There's this feeling that the arts are a frill, something expendable and elitist. But really, the arts are inside everyone's home, and professional artists add to the mix of the kinds of stories that are being told and the way they're told. Isn't that what we do when we talk to each other? We tell stories."

That reminded me of what Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, a bestselling memoir and then play about surviving the sudden death of her husband, once wrote: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

Fall's here. The curtain is up. The stories are out there.

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