If any of you follow me on Instagram, you know that the last two months of my life have been almost solely dedicated to being in my theater’s production of The Sparrow. And you probably know that, as of last night, it’s officially over.
Well, we did it. We made a show. And I feel amazing and wrung-out and weepy and tired and magical. The curtain closed last night and I just sobbed. Heartbroken, ugly tears, lost-someone-I’ll-never-see-again kind of sobbed.
I think I can honestly say that this was my first ever show. The last time I acted on stage I was in fifth grade and it was a church theater production of the story of Esther. Acting for me then meant memorizing my lines and being loud. But these last few weeks have been hard work—possibly some of the hardest I’ve ever done. I’ve been in rehearsals for up to twenty-five hours a week, straining my imagination and voice and body. As an actor, I’ve been asked to do nearly impossible things and I’ve somehow simultaneously failed and succeeded. I’ve stepped into the story of someone else and shared it imperfectly. But even in all its faults, it was a sharing only I could do.
Creating this play has taught me something rich about the role of advocacy. Now that the play is over, I can start writing down the spoilers I wanted to keep from everyone else. Now everyone who is ever going to see it knows that Emily Book killed a busload of second graders and a still very young woman. I’ve stood condemned countless nights in a row, facing and refacing the judgement that falls upon Emily’s shoulders. I’ve experienced what it feels like to be accused—to stand emptyhanded under the weight of some tremendous last mistake. I still don’t know that I can fully imagine what it means to be Emily in that moment, but I’ve certainly stood in her shoes. Playing a girl with blood on her hands has taught me compassion. I’ve learned to release my own judgement. I’ve seen the fraility and fear and courage in Emily, and I’ve stood in those moments too. Night after night, for weeks now, I’ve stood on the stage and begged on her behalf. And if that hasn’t taught me about what it means to advocate for another person, I don’t know what ever will.
It’s an amazing and tender thought to know that every night, when the lights came up, I knew I was going to be spending the next two hours in a world of compassion, with fellow actors and audience members who cared about this story and worked to tell and understand it. The friends I worked with became colleagues as I witnessed them stretch and use their bodies to further this message of loss and grace. I remember one night at the talkback hearing my fellow actors share, one by one, what it meant for them to play these high schoolers and their parents, and what they learned about grace, community, loss, and self-reflection in the process.
I think the message of The Sparrow was deeply rooted in a sense of community. At the end of the play, when all is revealed and more lives are hurt by the truth of Emily’s past, there is no real avenue for forgiveness. There is only grace—a float defined by the simple act of seeing and moving with each other. Last night, as I stood behind the stage and watched my dear friends float together, I started to weep at what this process meant for us. Through these roles and through this work, we have learned to really see each other. It’s easy to think of theater as simply make-believe—a giant act of pretend. But I think we are sometimes made more honest through our character work. I learned things about myself through being Emily that I don’t know I ever would have discovered otherwise. And in the same way, I was able to really see and acknowlege the work of the others around me. We breathed together. For five weeks, in one black box, we created a world out of practically nothing and inhabited it side by side. We experienced laughter, great loss, and a breathtaking amount of magic.
One of the things I’ve written about before but still never ceases to amaze me is the ephemeral quality of theater. One of the reasons we love to study artists and writers is because we are overwhelmed by the legacies they leave behind—a lifetime’s worth of paintings, sculptures, poems, and thoughts. Theater doesn’t work that way. It is conceived, slaved over, brought together, worked through, put on, lasted, and then over. There is no physical object I could look at, touch, or read to bring me back to the exact moments of this production. This morning, if I walked over to the theater now, I would find only an empty black box again. Because that’s what theater does. It disappears.
The ephemeral quality of theater means that it is something that only lives on in our memories of each other. The photographs can’t bring it back. The recordings—if there are any—can’t help us to relive it. We are living conduits of theater in the way we carry our memories of each other. I may not ever be Emily again. But someone will remember me that way. Someone will remember the time I froze dodgeballs. The time I cried. The time I ran. The time I flew.
I’m thankful I have these new memories of my friends as colleagues. It changes the way I look at them, I know. I see them for who they are, but I also see them for who they were. We have this new shared experience—something we created and fought for together.
The world will go on and new plays will be born and live out their lives and then come to an end and be laid to rest. But we’ll keep catching new glimpses of each other, slowing filling out the images in our minds with moments of magic, wonder, beauty, and loss. We’re colored by these experiences, and, in that way, they’re never really over.
(Photos c/o Paul Vermeesch)