Stage Left

There’s a doorknob on my desk from a troupe that ceased to be.

The Doorknob Award usually garners a few questions when people notice it. The simple answer is that it’s a prize given for overcoming technical difficulties, where the set broke down but the actor didn’t. I got it for navigating a grease-covered stage as the moustache-twirling villain in a melodrama, after the audience got a bit too enthusiastic about throwing popcorn.

It’s one of my favorite things that I ever brought home from the Community Theatre of Emporia. And now it has to be a lasting memory.

This week, I found out the CTE is no more.

I’ve never lost a theatre company before. I never really believed one could. Like most disasters, it’s a possibility you can be intellectually aware of without realizing it can happen to you. It seems even less likely when the company has a long run, 34 years in the case of the CTE.

But sometimes, in spite of everything, the show really doesn’t go on.

There were a lot of reasons. There always are. The company had to move out of its base in the Emporia Arts Council about the time I moved out of Kansas, and never really found another permanent home. Toward the end, there was never quite enough money and never quite enough hands on deck, a familiar refrain to many actors and producers. It’s always been easier to get people to see a show than to perform in one, and in this over-busy day and age, even getting them to be an audience takes a lot of work.

Funny. So many times it never felt like work. Not really.

I think many of us have a space like that. The home away from home, the place you come because you want to, not because you have to. And whether it’s a church, or a pub, or a reading group, or a stage – or even an online community – it comes to feel like an extension of your own family, a place where, as the song goes, everybody knows your name.

Losing a place like that can feel like a death. When the bookstore closes or the website goes away or the mall gets bulldozed, it leaves behind questions, confusion and uncertainty about the future. It’s easy to rehash the deed and wonder if anything could have changed it, to get angry or depressed or numb.

For an actor, the poignancy has a jagged edge. After all, we create dreams. We turn sweat and imagination into worlds that never were. To be reminded that the magic has limits, that all our powers of sub-creation still have to bow to the world outside the stage door – it’s humbling. And more than a little frightening.

Like many a mourner, it would be too easy for me to get lost in grief. So instead, I’ll raise my virtual glass to stir the echoes, strengthen the memories, and wake up the ghosts.

Here’s to the CTE.

Here’s to the crew that performed outdoor Shakespeare in 95 degree heat and 95 percent humidity, bringing the same passion whether the audience held 100 people or three.

Here’s to the company that made sets fall apart on command and who improvised fast when they fell apart without one.

Here’s to my role as an actor literally playing God in “J.B.,” complete with a beard that belonged on a Pearl Street busker.

Here’s to blunted swords and guns with blanks, to robber bridegrooms and roaring Roosevelts, to Christmases on the road with “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.”

And yes, here’s to popcorn-covered stages so slick you could skate on them.

Here’s to you, my friends and family. May our creation rest in peace and live in memory.

And someday, like a stage-door ghost, may it rise and walk again.

Al In The Family

“Is everything OK?” I asked Heather as she talked on the phone.

She shook her head hard. Reaching for a pad of stickies, she scribbled a quick note.

It said simply AL DIED.

I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

Regular readers may remember Al, the man who married our Grandma Marilyn early this year. He was in his 80s, she her 70s; living proof that love can happen at any age.

Now he was gone.

I tried driving on an errand. On the way home, I made at least four wrong turns.

They never even got an anniversary, I kept thinking. They never even got a Christmas together.

It seemed monstrously unfair.

Two people couldn’t have been better suited for each other than Al and Marilyn. She had the energy, he the quiet strength.  She could draw him out; he could calm her down. It had been one of the great pairings, a perfect fit.

I’d gotten to know him some, while they were dating and after they married. Kind smile, easy laugh, a South Dakota gentleman of the old school. We’d lifted furniture together as they moved from her house to his and gave us some of the excess. I’d listened to some of his family stories; he’d listened to an original song of mine on the piano.

I had played at their wedding and thrilled to the joy on both their faces. A love ready to last a lifetime, however long the lifetime might last.

“I’ve been happier this last year than I was for the entire lifetime before it,” Marilyn told me as we talked.

Thinking back on that, in the midst of a painful, confusing day, I realized I’d been wrong.

They had had their Christmas. Every day, they gave themselves to each other, then woke up to find the gift anew.

They had had their anniversary. Every day had been a celebration, a fresh commitment, a resolve to take that first day and make it even stronger.

The calendar on the wall wouldn’t agree. But the calendar in the heart knew it all along.

Less than a year? Yes.

A small piece of eternity? Yes.

Time enough? Never. It never could be on this earth, not if it were half a century.

Timeless enough? From the first hour of the first day.

It’s easy to get drowned in the “nevers.” We never did this. He’ll never hear that. I’ll never get a chance to say this. On and on, in a downward spiral of depression, each turn causing a little more pain than the last.

Or you can reach to that calendar. Remember the warmth. Recall the love. Not “getting over it,” as the crude phrase would have it, but moving with it, refusing to let the pain of now take away the joy of then.

There’s an Al-shaped hole in all our hearts. There probably always will be. But the hole doesn’t have to stay empty. Not if we don’t let it.

Thank you, Al. For everything. And especially for the light you brought to Marilyn’s life.

A November-December marriage may face its winter all too soon.

But it also means that from its start, the holidays have already begun.