Today began like any other day. The household woke early to get to school, a privilege in this time of social distancing. After dropping my kids, I put on one of my favorite playlists. It’s a long one — impossible to get through to the end — so today I hit shuffle and in that moment, I didn’t realize I would be driving home in tears. You see, the song titled “Do You Hear the People Sing” from ‘Les Miserables’ began to play and I found myself overcome with emotion. The song played and I was transported. While music often impacts me, it wasn’t just the song, it was all that it implied.
When I was 20, my mom took me to see that performance — live, in person, in a theater.
It was the day after I got my wisdom teeth pulled and a week after my mom’s knee surgery — an uncomfortable experience — yet that is not why it’s important now.
So many major milestones in my life have taken place in a theater. As a performer, creator and designer, it’s a home to me. When I say theater, I use the word loosely. It could be a space in an old, historical building or it could be a sparse warehouse with folding chairs. All of them are familiar spaces of magic.
When I say magic, I mean that on so many levels.
My childhood was spent in the theater – ballets mostly – in large ornate theaters with plush red seats. I would sit there, on the edge of my seat, an aspiring dancer myself, and absorb all that was around me — not only the art. Sharing space with humans in a common experience is impactful and I knew that at 9 years old. The possibilities were endless. Imagine it and I could become.
I can feel what it is to sit in an audience before this pandemic. Sitting close enough to share an arm rest; sharing laughter with unmasked, open-mouthed strangers, and shedding tears next to someone I will never see again. The whole experience of absorbing stories, plays, and dances lives in my body. The kinesthetic empathy is given to me like a gift from those performers.
But what is more important — these spaces gave me a place to take risk, to peel away the layers that my family and society placed upon me. These theaters were places to push the boundaries…
Being in theaters in my teens saved me from myself. Mostly large, unkept high school auditoriums. But the magic that happened there was that of self-identity, self-discovery. The safety of the ‘theater crowd’ gave me a place to be my quirky, idiosyncratic self in a small, homogenous, American town. I attempted to make art but mostly it was bad, regurgitated remnants of what was taught to me. But the togetherness was essential and that was important. Theater games, rehearsals, warm ups, we were all equal in that theater. The cliques and complexities of high school disappeared.
The dingy theaters of my college years blew my mind and brought me to myself. There were 4 or 5 spaces in the old brownstone building on Brimmer street that I called home. These were theaters that I had never seen before; black boxes, studio spaces, theaters in the round, thrust stages. There were elements I hadn’t considered before; the world literally opened up to me. I could make dance and tell stories using these magical spaces. Imagine it and it can become.
But what is more important — these spaces gave me a place to take risk, to peel away the layers that my family and society placed upon me. These theaters were places to push the boundaries, question everything, innovate new ideas, possibilities and perspectives. All the while, behind the scenes, the players in these spaces connected, touched, kissed and learned about humanity.
From the beginning stages of the making, to the performance, to the final strike and cast parties, this has been my life. I met my partner in the theater. I remember the first time I saw him — wearing jeans and an old red, black and blue plaid button down shirt — climbing the ladder to the catwalk as I danced on the floor below. Much of our first year together was working in production, never-ending long days and nights. I learned the love of labor as we barely slept opening productions and the labor of love as we negotiated our individual needs within the couple we were becoming. Now our kids are comfortable in these spaces; they watch the art, the production, and the process. They see the skill and focus it takes to come together in collaboration.
Collaboration. Humanity. Creation. Empathy. Authenticity. Risk taking. Questioning. Collective Work. Connection. These are the lessons of the theater. These were my lessons.
Where are we without them? Without the spaces to create and connect, to be in proximity, to sing together, to touch each other and make art? What happens to humanity when we need to isolate for our own safety? I know that we will get through this. Humans will emerge from this pandemic as we have from countless other plagues. But I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know what these collective spaces look like. Maybe they will be more inclusive, more accessible, and more thoughtful. Maybe this is the time to rethink who, how and what is done in theaters and beyond. I hope so.
Imagine it and it can become.
Photograph by Cheryl Adams Johnson
All audio, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC