The energy in the theater does not wilt when the season turns.
The weather may be scorchy, the national tension may be high, the mosquitoes may be fierce, but the joie de vivre is unflappable. This just might be the fifteenth time I’ve written a preview of a Thomas Nelson production, so as I walked into dress rehearsal this past Tuesday night to the sights and sounds and smells I’ve described so many times before, I began to wonder: How do they do it? Why do they do it? And where do they get the energy?
It should come as no surprise that players in a musical at a community college aren’t paid. Some receive course credit, some technically work at the college, but that doesn’t justify enduring endless rehearsals, months of late nights, charred vocal chords, aching hips, and the hellish nightmare that is Tech Week. With mops and cannons strewn about and dresses bright and colorful sashaying to and fro, my thoughts refused to leave the simple question: Why? Why did they do it? What sane person would put in all that effort for just six performances?
When I pose this question to Laura Meisner (who plays Buttercup), she sighs then says “I ask myself that every time tech week comes around.” She pauses, focuses on a cackle coming from backstage, then continues, “I do this here because of the people. The directors are fabulous, the musicians are fabulous, the casts are fabulous. If it weren’t for the people, I would probably be somewhere else.”
Jackie Blackwell echoes this sentiment: “It’s for the community. The young people are smart and funny and talented and mostly well behaved, and I enjoy watching Torrie and Michael work.” This is a reference to Music Director Michael Sundblad and Director/Theater Manager/Seamstress/Life Coach/Mom Victoria Sanders.
As Ms. Blackwell finishes Tim Ayres-Kerr (who plays Ralph Rackstraw) cries from the stage: “I misplaced my line flippy book.” His true-hearted singing pairs well with Sarah Jones (who plays Josephine). Her voice will melt your heart and curl your toes, so if you’re looking for one reason to see this production of the infamous Gilbert And Sullivan musical, which begins tonight at 8:00, she’s it. Performances continue on Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00 with a repeat of the schedule next weekend.
And then there’s Brian Wrestler. Was Brian Wrestler born to play saucy parts or were saucy parts born to play Brian Wrestler? Was Brian Wrestler born of a woman or was he conjured in the bowels of the Mary T Christian Auditorium in order to bring levity to Thomas Nelson productions? Does he sleep hanging upside down from the lighting rigs? Is he hiding a homunculus in his belly?
Wrestler plays Dick Deadeye, an ugly sailor who speaks and sings the truth no matter how harsh. Wrestler brought barrel laughs as the Porter in Macbeth, and in Pinafore he creates the musical’s essential tension between somber and silly. The score is sweet but not saccharine, and the story lampoons the staid British gentry, making buffoons of nearly everyone. But amidst the “Big D” jokes is real and serious emotion. Josephine and Ralph really do love each other, and their different stations in life really will keep them apart. That’s no joke.
As the rehearsal began I had to keep peeking into the orchestra pit to see if they were playing their instruments or the control room had switched on a recording from a Broadway production. The first act bounced quickly to intermission causing my head to bob and my cheeks to sting from so much grinning. As the curtain drew to a close I returned to the question of why. Why did they do it? Their answers made sense objectively, but I’m a writer. I like people, but I work alone.
Then it hit me: the theater is a complete and total escape. Even when the content of the play is bloody–like with Macbeth–there are no murders here. Even when the play pokes fun at unqualified leaders, there are no baffling presidential elections here. When the world is insane in the most depressing way, these folks can go to the theater and create a joyful madness of their own. That’s why they do it, and that’s why you should join them tonight.