Tag Archives: high school drama

The Blank Stage, The Blank Page


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.

Just like our hearts.


On Losing (or, why art competitions suck)


I teach Drama, and we’ve just wrapped up our first production of the year. Wrapping a show is sort of an emotional roller coaster in its own right, but this show in particular was a competition piece, which carries its own unique set of pressures and baggage. And being the new guy in the building and in the program, there was a sort of excitement and uncertainty hanging over the whole thing.

Well, we lost. So now there’s this big ol’ empty feeling hanging around the end of this show. I didn’t want that to be the last thing in my mind, or in the minds of my students, so I wanted to say something to them to sort of tie all this up. And while I could have ad-libbed it, there were a few things I wanted to make sure that I got right, so I decided to write down what I’m going to say to them.

And when I started doing that, I realized, hey howdy, it fits right in with what I’m doing here in my own life, trying to write novels and tell stories and all that. So I’m posting it here.

Maybe my fellow arters will find something useful here.

****

So we’ve been working on this play for the better part of two months. For some of you, it’s your first foray into the arts. For others — my seniors — this may be your last bite at the apple.

We all thought we had a chance. I wasn’t exempt. As much as I know to temper expectations in a situation like this, I still held out hope, down in the soft underbelly of my heart, that we might win. We took this weird little show and this weird bunch of actors and spun it like spider silk into a web of quirky jokes, bizarre moments, and puzzling profundities; we knew we had something special.

It wasn’t easy. We got on each others’ nerves. We struggled to keep our lives in order while it was all going on, and some of us succeeded better than others. You suffered car accidents, illnesses to yourselves and your families, arguments and fights and breakups, and I don’t even want to know what else. And despite all that, everything came together at the perfect moment, and you gave a performance I didn’t even know we were capable of.

But hanging over all this was the competition, and that means that at the end of the day, there are winners and losers. And we didn’t win. Didn’t place. Didn’t even merit an honorable mention.

We can’t mitigate that. That sucks. It feels like a great big thumbs-down from the heavens, like the disembodied voice of God asking, “why did you even bother?”

And it might leave you thinking, why did I sink so much time into this? Why did I give up my afternoons and evenings, all that free time, all that mental energy — to merit not even a mention when it’s all said and done?

This is the problem with competitions in art. With awards and plaques and trophies, with comparing the fruit of your labor to the fruit of somebody else’s. This isn’t like football, where the better prepared, better organized, stronger, faster team wins within the margin of error for luck. This is art, and art is subjective. It means different things to different people. For better or worse — and it’s usually for worse — winning an art competition is about appealing to the right person in the right way at the right time.

And we didn’t.

And again, that sucks.

I can’t sugarcoat it. Even though I was totally prepared for it, it still burns me up. I spent most of the ride home muttering to myself, gritting my teeth, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. I know what this means to you. I’ve been there. And my heart goes out to you, not because we “lost,” but because this feels like a rejection and a nullification of not only the performance, but of everything we all did to make the performance happen. It feels like we did something wrong, something that wasn’t “good enough.”

And if we focus on the trophy — on the “winning” and “losing” and the honorable mentions, then it’s easy to read this situation that way.

But that’s not how I choose to read it. And I hope it’s not how you’ll choose to read it.

Art is not about winning awards. It’s about making connections. It’s about finding those people in your audience who are ready to hear the story you have to tell them. It’s about the ring of the applause in your ears, the accolades from people you don’t know but for this momentary connection, the conversations people have on the way to their cars afterward. Art isn’t the trophy that gets locked in a case to gather dust. Art is the experience that lives in your heart, that warm, giddy glow that you’ll remember when you get down on yourself, that knowledge that you did something that made a difference, that you changed the way somebody thought about you, about the world, about life, even if only for a little while.

That’s what art is about.

We don’t take home a trophy, but they can’t take away the standing ovation you got (and let’s not forget, we were the only group to get one of those).

We don’t go on to the next round, but we delighted our audience. We made them laugh and smile and cheer when heavy and emotional was the flavor of the day; we gave them an afternoon rainstorm in the dead of a hot, stifling summer.

Sometimes audiences applaud out of politeness. Because they’re supposed to do it, because it’s what you do to pay a tribute, however small. But when somebody stands up and applauds? They do that because they have to. Not because they’re forced to, or expected to, but because they have no other choice: something you did moved them to the core. The art got into them, stirred up their insides, and had to be expelled before it tore them apart.

Art is visceral. Art is emotional. Art isn’t about tallying points on a sheet, it’s about scratching marks on your audience’s soul.

You went into this show with claws out. You affected that audience. And that means a hell of a lot more to me than any trophy.

Could we have done some things differently? Sure. Could we have done things better, scored a few more points, fenagled a better ranking? Maybe.

But that show wouldn’t have been this show, and this show is one that I will never forget. And that’s because of you, and the performance that you gave, and because of what we all felt in that auditorium when the curtain came down.

Never forget that feeling. Because that’s what art is all about.

 


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