It was already an emotional time.
Our theater, the auditorium that had housed all of the theater our district had to offer for 55 years, was slated for demolition. Yes, it was just a building, but to those of us who found our home on the stage, it was a little bit more.
So we planned an event to pay homage to the facility. We dressed in formal attire and walked a pseudo-red carpet. We invited alumni and former teachers. We shared pictures, and songs, and memories.
Then, it happened. My students starting leaving in the middle of the show. First a few, then more, then most.
What in the world was happening? On one hand I was thinking “This better be an emergency!’ and on the other praying it was not.
Then a student was beside me, whispering in my ear.
“Jason’s dad just died. We don’t know what to do.”
Suddenly the music went quiet in my ears and the real meaning of this building came crashing into the spotlight. This kid needed a family.
Within moments, Jason was plodding down the center aisle and plopped hopelessly in the front row. I rushed to meet him, audience be damned. What can we do? How can I help? Do we need to take you somewhere? You don’t have to stay here, you can go.
“No. I need to be here” Jason responded.
And that is when it all came back to me, the reason that I was here in this moment.
I was 18 years old. I had been in a handful of shows during my high school years, but it was a hobby I shared with friends. Who knew what would happen when college started in the fall. I never intended to make this my life’s work. But then, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly.
As fate would have it, as I sat in the hallway of our local emergency room, surrounded by people, yet totally alone, my theater director showed up, out of the blue. She and a handful of other theater friends pulled me up, held me close, and reminded me that theater family IS family. They supported me through the funeral, and throughout my life after. I told the story often, and held it close to my heart as I sang at my director’s funeral.
In that moment, all of the set calls, and stage cues, and memorization deadlines, and cast parties were secondary to the real gift of theater: the family. Something mystical and beautiful happens during a show that cannot be explained to someone outside. The real gift that the shows had given my students was in the comradery that theater affords. Theater is a home when home seems scary, or far away, or when there isn’t really another home at all. Theater offers support in the form of family to students who have never felt at home before, students who have never felt welcomed before.
In the moment of greatest sadness, Jason needed this family, this safe place. He couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world.
So after the show, as I turned off the lights and exited the building for the final time, I thought to myself that the building may be torn down, but the most important part of that theater was going with us, and our family would pick up right where we left off, in our new home.