catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 10 :: 2011.05.20 — 2011.06.09


Look up

Emily:  Do any human beings ever realize life while they’re living it — every, every minute?

Stage Manager:  No.  Saints and poets, maybe.  They do some.

“I hate this play.”  “This is so boring.”  “I don’t understand it at all.”  “There are no props?”

We were young, yes, but not afraid to express skepticism over the play our theater director had selected that year, my senior year of high school.  She had chosen Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, an American masterpiece notorious for its almost complete lack of props.  I had read it for the first time in preparation for auditions and noncommittally declared it “interesting.”  Yes, maybe it would be painfully dull, without props or fun costumes or creative sets…but maybe it wouldn’t.  I found myself cautiously curious to see if we really could tell a compelling story without all the extras — just words.

Frankly, though, my chief concern was not with props or sets.  All that I really cared about was who would win the part of Emily Webb.  I was an awkward, shy, homeschooled high schooler who wanted so much to be thought pretty and graceful.  In the previous year’s play I had been cast as a hard-working immigrant mother; this year, I thought, might be my chance to be the pretty, young romantic lead!  My director had other ideas.

“Stage Manager — Ginny Heidel” read the cast list.  I was stunned. Wasn’t the Stage Manager an old man?  I pictured a sunburned, wrinkled, silver-haired sage with a twinkle in his eye — Paul Newman, basically.  I could not do this.  I thought that I was doing some injustice to Thornton Wilder and his vision by speaking these words as a teenage girl who — let’s face it — didn’t really know anything about life.  I braced for months of prop-less, romance-less boredom.

As rehearsals progressed, I continued to be dissatisfied with the part and struggled to define a “vision” for the character that was anything other than Paul Newman.  It was frustrating not to be able to share my director’s enthusiasm for the role.  My castmates and I struggled to make our miming look less awkward than it felt, but convincingly feeding invisible chickens or leading a milk cow proved challenging.  As the weeks passed, however, these efforts began spilling over into the rest of my life.  I observed a slow and subtle change in the way I related to everyday objects.  I was paying attention to their different textures; to how they responded to being picked up or pushed; to what muscles I relied on to pick up a Mason jar; to the movement of a piece of paper in my hand.

However, by opening night I still wasn’t entirely sure of what I was doing or what the audience would get out of this strange, visually minimal play.  The lights came up and I started speaking, and before we knew it we were in the final scene.  “Emily” had just re-lived moments from her own life and been convicted of her many little daily crimes of not noticing the people and the joys around her.  She turned to me, trembling, crying real tears that would not have affected the Stage Manager but completely unnerved Ginny Heidel. “It goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another.  I didn’t realize.  All that was going on in life and we never noticed.”  I almost broke character, so much did I suddenly want to weep with her.  Never in rehearsals had I really understand the awful questions the play was asking me.  Like Emily, how much of my life had I not truly seen, heard, lived?  Like props and sets, how many people and things would have to be absent in order for me to realize their value?  When it was all over — when I was no longer the Stage Manager — all the nooks and crannies of my schoolgirl heart were full of gratitude for the chance to play that role and let all those good, good words and lessons seep into me.

Our Town was such a gentle preparation for lessons we would learn later in life.  The seven years that have passed have brought with them a great deal of unexpected change and loss.   I now have to strive to remember the way my aunt’s eyes sparkled before cancer slowly closed them, or how tall my father stood before an accident left him paralyzed.  The play rings through my head, challenging me to notice people and things before they are gone. (“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go — doesn’t it?”)  Sometimes when I am absorbed by this computer so much that I have tuned out my wonderful housemates, I suddenly think of Our Town, and I close the laptop.  I close it and turn to be more fully present with these women who bring such undeserved glory and goodness to my life.  Maybe if I hug them closer a little of that glory will rub off on me.  Often as I walk down the street or ride the subway Emily Webb drifts into in my head, telling me to look up, look up.  Look up from my shoes, the cracks in the sidewalk, the cigarette butts on the ground — and instead take in the ever-varying play of sunlight on leaves; the contented strut of the ducks in the park; the stories in the faces of passersby, each one carrying a unique facet of God’s image.  Take in all of these moments and sounds and sights that will not happen again.  Notice things.  Notice people.  Be present to the life I’ve been given.  Oh, life is so very full, brimming over with glimpses of glory just waiting to be seen if we would only look with the eyes of saints and poets.  

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