Writing about theater makes me nervous. I think that’s because both writing and theater are precious to me, and using one to speak about the other is doubly vulnerable. Extra heart-unzipping and thought-exposing. But now, and because of last night, I am going to try.
Last night I went to see a local production of The Spitfire Grill, a little musical that is near and dear to my heart because it was the first musical I did in college, the first musical I worked on after two years of a craving hunger for more theater work. I was a part of an unlikely cast of seven, a part of a small but mighty theater that worked tirelessly and lovingly throughout the winter months to turn our blackbox into Gilead, Wisconsin and fill our walls with music. My character delivered letters and spread gossip and noticed ladybugs and spoke most truly when she was singing. Working on Spitfire offered me a chance to learn something about advocating, something about discovering, something about doing small things well. Something about singing out of a story. And the story of Spitfire had much to share with me and with all who encountered it about the way God redeems the roughness, about the way things come alive again.
If anyone who worked on Spitfire with me is reading this, thank you. Thank you for entering and creating that world alongside me. Thank you for the things you did to serve the story. Three months later, thank you.
As I write these words I’m anxious that I’m not doing Spitfire justice, and I’m also aware that I still miss that world and that work, a lot. I knew last night that I was taking a risk by going to see a different theater’s production of a show that I felt so much ownership over not too long ago. But I decided to go, because I missed watching theater, and honestly, because I was curious about how someone else would tell this story.
Watching the show, I laughed and felt and remembered. I let myself enter someone else’s Gilead, and very honestly enjoyed it, especially watching scenes that I hadn’t seen in a while since I was backstage for them during dress rehearsals and performances. But internally I also found myself analyzing and criticizing, a lot. The production made a lot of strong choices, most that I didn’t agree with. It was much more a Musical than ours was, with songs that were more production numbers than little glimpses into characters’ hearts. I’m not going to go into detail; I don’t want to start writing a review instead of doing what I mean to do in this post, which is explore the strange and juxtaposition-filled feeling I felt last night of both solidarity and confusion. After the show I told Emma, a dear friend and Spitfire castmate, that as much as I questioned the production’s choices, I was still clapping and smiling at the cast during curtain call and wishing I could thank each of them and say, “please love and carry this little story as best you can while it is yours.“
Watching someone else tell a story that you really, really loved telling is a hard thing to do. But it is, sometimes at least, a good thing to do. An exercise in holding loosely, in teaching ourselves to love and still let go.
To keep saying to our fellow artists, “please love and carry this story as best you can while it is yours.”
That’s all we can really ask, because I think it’s what we hope for ourselves, too. That we love and carry, carefully and closely, the stories we choose to tell. As my acting professor reminds us, we are always imperfect vessels. We honor these characters as best we can, and we honor them imperfectly.
And so their stories deserve retelling.
Who am I to say that a story can only be told in a certain way? Why would I want to say that? I want to hold all kinds of choices in my hands as good and valid, because the theater I fell in love with is the theater without limits, a theater that is alive because it lives a thousand lives, each of them different. Theater that tries a thousand ways to make the invisible visible, that fails in some ways and succeeds in some ways but always reaches from new angles. The stories we tell and retell onstage carry in them important truths and profound questions that deserve, over and over again, to be brought into light. This light will not always come from me, and it will not always come in the way I want it to, and as an artist I want to learn to be okay with that. I want to learn to hold with loose hands. To, as poet Frank O’Hara puts it, “always embrace things, people earth sky stars, as I do, freely and with the appropriate sense of space.”
So, last night’s Spitfire Grill had a few less envelopes and a few more jazz hands than I wanted it to. That’s okay. Sometimes the different choices highlighted different tensions, nuances of the story that I hadn’t thought about in a while. Sometimes they asked me to reconsider a character in a way that I hadn’t before. And sometimes, I was just thankful that our production had chosen differently.
In the end, last night’s Spitfire Grill was still a wonderful carrying of characters who deserve to have their stories told, and it succeeded in some really lovely ways.
I hope that’s what our production was, too.