With every play I’ve ever been a part of, there’s a period of time where you’re just not sure if the show is going to “make it”.
There are so many elements that have to come together: the actors and their performances, the set pieces getting built, all the painting to be done, people bringing in costumes, lighting effects, sound effects, blood sacrifices to appease the theatre gods… there’s just a *lot*. And it’s kind of miraculous that theatre happens at all, sometimes; getting that many people on the same page is hard enough when you’re dealing with normies — to try it with artists is a truly herculean task.
So there’s always that time where you look at the state of the thing, shake your head, and say “I just don’t know, man.”
Usually that time is short. Usually it strikes within a couple weeks before the show opens and it dissipates after you get a tech rehearsal or two under your belt.
But this year? In the plague year? That time started roughly a week after we had the show cast and it has not let up since.
Between kids getting quarantined and extracurriculars being cancelled by the district due to severe weather, our rehearsal time just isn’t there, and we’re unfocused and stressed and it’s getting close to panic.
But I also know that no matter how disastrous things seemed in every other play I’ve been a part of, you come through that time and the show survives. Somehow (probably all the blood sacrifices) the theatre gods smile on your show and allow it to come to fruition… and sometimes, to even be *good*.
I owe you something extra for my half-post last week — so here it is!
A teacher finds their student at work in the library and approaches them.
Teacher: Chaucer, huh? Canterbury Tales. I remember reading that when I was your age. What, you don’t think I was young once? World’s full of surprises, huh? (Looking at the book.) You know, I never got The Canterbury Tales. I still don’t. And I have to teach it. (Beat.) But you get it. You’re smart. Good head on your shoulders. Which is why I know you’re going to come through for me. I know you’re dealing. (Student stands up.) Uh-uh. Don’t. Sit down. Nice and easy. We’re just talking. Don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do know. Now, relax. I’m not here to turn you in. I’m here to help you. You’re good in English, but you’re struggling in math. You need a tutor. I need a new supplier. You take cash, right?
I’m at a theater educators conference this week, and one of the workshops I took was in monologue writing for students. Part of the work was — you guessed it — writing monologues!
I wrote three over the course of the hour – this one in less than ten minutes – but this one was my favorite.
It’s as inevitable as the sunset when you work in the theater — for every show that opens, the show must close. As the curtain goes up, so must it eventually come down. And as the stage was once a hurly-burly mass of activity and energy and joy, so it must revert to a hollow, silent room.
We’ve just finished the run of our spring musical, and if you hadn’t noticed, I’m feeling a little empty. I’m a lot relieved and a lot satisfied and a heck of a lot tired, but with all of that comes a little bit empty. You give so much of your life and your time and your thoughts to this one endeavor until finally, over one whirlwind weekend, it’s over.
But that doesn’t sum it up entirely. Theater is this ephemeral thing, fleeting and fragile and magical and then, suddenly, gone. It’s not like most other art forms. You write a book, or a poem, or a story, and the words are there basically forever. Whether they’re scrawled on the page or stored in the digital guts of a computer, the words — the fruit of your effort — remain. Write and record a great song? You can play it back as many times as you want, record as many versions as you want. Draw? Paint? Sculpt? Those things persist. But with the theater, you’re building a moment, a moment in time that must by its nature pass and leave no trace. The only evidence that the thing was ever there is in memory (and in the admittedly massive cleanup afterward).
I’ve had students coming up to me all week saying they’re so sad the show is over, that they don’t know what to do with themselves now. Some of that is in jest — with all the extra time, what can’t you do with yourself now — but a lot of it is genuine. Logging all these extra hours with these people, in this place, working together on this project … it’s the quintessential example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. So when it’s done, and the final bows have been taken, it’s no great shock that, for these kids especially, it’s a bit like losing a loved one. Even on the shows that are kind of a train wreck (and I’ve been involved in a few of those, let there be no doubt), the cast and crew become a family, develop a bond that’s a bit unlike anything else. And this show, to state it with humility, was far from a train wreck.
A colleague of mine when I was coaching soccer put it in perspective for me as we were bemoaning our near miss at the playoffs that year. The squad was all understandably disappointed, bordering on depression. And so was I. And he said,
“Sometimes you have great years, and sometimes you have not-so-great years. Every once in a great while you get the chance to catch lightning in a bottle, and those are the really great years. But what matters to the guys isn’t so much the win-loss record. It’s what they go through as a team. Are we teaching them the right things, win or lose? Are we making them better men? That’s what matters. And we’re teaching these guys the right things, coach.”
I left that job — and that coaching position — sooner than I would have liked for the sake of that team, in pursuit of another, deeper dream of mine — teaching theater. But I saw those guys again a few weeks ago, under some truly unfortunate circumstances.
One of our players from that season had died, passed away while on vacation. He was 22. And while the sadness and the hurt of that moment was still seeping in, I was greeted by his teammates — or, as they had taken to calling themselves, his brothers. In my grief, my players — my students — they comforted me. They reassured me that life goes on, that we have to live right and be strong for each other in the absence of those that have passed away.
My team of boys had grown into a crew of men, showing me exactly what we’d been trying to teach them back then. We did catch lightning in a bottle, then — I just didn’t know it at the time.
This show was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle experiences, but I think it became that — in part, at least — because of the culture we’re building at my school. We’re teaching the right things, forming the right kinds of relationships, showing these young people how to chase after what matters and how to be good brothers and sisters to one another in the process. And that’s what really matters, regardless of how good the show was or how many tickets we sold.
(Of course, it helps that the show was also excellent.)
So now, the blank stage, and the emotional vacuum that swirls in its wake. I’ve been telling my students that it’s okay — perfectly normal, in fact — to feel a bit sad. The set has come down, the costumes have gone home, the props are all back in storage. The stage is empty, and it’s not wrong to feel empty with it.
But I’m also pointing out to them how full of potential an empty theater is. All that space, just waiting to be claimed. All that energy, waiting to be tapped. The blank stage is just like the blank page — a world of possibility unsullied by past mistakes or fears of the future.
It’s there, an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.
Rain hammers at the windows as outside, a lance of lightning splits the sky. The rickety Cessna’s every seam rattles in the ensuing thunderclap. It’s been through its share of storms, but every storm is different, and this one is a humdinger.
Flashes of lightning sporadically light up the faces of the passengers. There is screaming terror, dumbstruck panic, horrified weeping. Some are praying, rocking as they mumble in their own tiny space. Some look ready to vomit at any moment. One, at least, has already done so.
There’s a BANG and a shudder rocks the plane. It’s impossible to say exactly what, but something has come off. In the spasmodic flashes of lightning, smoke is now visible out the windows. The wind tosses the craft around like a toddler with its favorite toy.
The scene in the cockpit is grim. A pilot mops sweat from his forehead, wrestling the stick for control of the plane — it bucks and thrashes in his hand like an angry python. Dimly he hears the screams of the passengers, but he’s much more concerned with the wind and the lightning and the looming mountain. Not enough altitude. The wheels clip the tops of trees, branches scraping the bottom of the plane like the grasping fingers of restless corpses. Another lurch as the wheel on one side is wrenched away.
But over the top of the hill — there, the landing strip. A faraway, flickering oasis. The engine coughs and stalls. They won’t be making it that far.
The doomed craft careens through the sky, passing low — too low — over farmhouses and fields toward the airfield. It wobbles drunkenly, smoke streaming from one engine like it’s a coal power plant before anybody ever heard of the EPA. It dives, banks hard to one side, dives again, and banks back, like a baby bird learning to fly on broken wings. It clips the top of an abandoned barn, blasting away part of the rotted roof in a shower of splinters.
Then, somehow, when by all rights the thing should be ditching in a cornfield, it levels off. The engines whine and sputter back to life, belching out gobs of black smoke, but giving it a burst of altitude. It just clears the power lines and rumbles toward the a clumsy touchdown like an eighth grader stepping onto the dance floor for the first time in his life.
Pandemonium as it touches down. The one wheel smokes while the un-wheeled leg gouges a terrific gash in the thin asphalt, gravel and tar scattering. The plane wobbles, fishtails, and finally flips over. One wing decides it’s had enough and sails off into the night. The tail crumples as the plane rolls over and over, flinging luggage and clothing across the tarmac.
Groaning like a tranquilized bear going under, the airplane topples to its side and lies mercifully still. One wing pointed toward the sky, the wheel a useless strip of deflated rubber spinning on its axle.
Then, sounds of life within. Traumatized groans and wails and exclamations of amazement as the passengers kick the door away and tumble out into the darkness. The pilot follows after them, cut and bruised and wild-eyed, but unhurt. They stumble across the runway clutching tightly to one another like starved refugees crossing the border.
And then the plane explodes. A glaring, angry fireball turning night into day.
This, then, is hell week in the theatre.
Every little thing is a crisis, every argument or misfire a question, seemingly, of life or death. An actor gets laryngitis. Another twists an ankle. Costumes don’t fit or can’t take the strain. The patches you put on the set to shore up the damage it was taking now have patches themselves. Literally every item of clothing you own is covered in flecks, if not splotches, if not gouts, of paint. The whole production, which you’ve spent months rehearsing, seems in danger of coming apart at any moment. You question every life decision which brought you to this point. Yet somehow the show survives. Somehow it crosses the finish line and everybody’s in one piece.
And, stranger still, some part of you wouldn’t have it any other way.