I wasn’t supposed to be in the show at all. I was supposed to be on summer vacation. My daughter auditioned for two roles in the musical “Matilda,” got one of the roles she auditioned for, and my involvement was limited to dropping her off and picking her up. Given that the greatest joy about summer vacation for me is simply not having to be somewhere doing something all the time, I thought that was plenty of commitment.
But then they didn’t have enough adults audition for the adult roles.
The director put the word out on their Facebook page that they needed some adults to fill certain roles, and I was just fine ignoring that. Honestly, I wouldn’t even have known if my wife hadn’t told me. Then, during their first rehearsal, my phone rang. It was my daughter. If I didn’t help, there wouldn’t be a show…and that was that. I agreed to play Rudolpho, the gay dance instructor, but was also signed up for the Escapologist and the infamous Dad #3. Oh yeah, and my wife was volunteered to play the Acrobat and Mom #3.
I wasn’t exactly dragged in kicking and screaming, but there was more than a little moaning involved as we made the drive across town for rehearsals. It wasn’t long before my wife, a choreographer by trade, was also called upon to supplement what little direction came from the credited choreographer (we saw her two or maybe three times) by making some sense out of several of the key dance numbers. This was definitely not what we had in mind for the first three weeks of July.
Rehearsals were a bit helter-skelter, without a whole lot of direction, many people arriving late (including the music director) and a lot of what felt like wasted time. Every minute wasted felt amplified because we only had two weeks of rehearsal before the first weekend of performances and quite a few of the cast members were not experienced performers. I had to teach one of the guys how to read music, and I’m not a music teacher. With opening day looming on Saturday we had our first dress rehearsal on Friday night and it felt like the struggle bus was about to be set on fire and go down in flames right out there at center stage. We had singers who couldn’t sing, dancers who couldn’t dance (including me!), kids running wild and a director whose approach could best be described as “hands-off.” Oh yeah, and we had to recast a fairly significant role two days before the opening.
What could go wrong?
The first two shows were really rough. Fortunately, the audience was sparse, so the mess that it was basically functioned as two additional dress rehearsals, which we badly needed. By the third show, however, something had begun to happen. We began to bond as a cast, we figured out what to do with the kids between their times on stage, we started talking amongst ourselves about ways to make our scenes better…and by the third show some magic was starting to happen. We were working out better ways to say things, better places to stand when delivering lines and basically making the show our own.
When we broke for the week between weekend shows, I was starting to feel good about my characters – the Escapologist, especially. Rudolpho was fun and silly, but the Escapologist had some real meat and was ultimately a tragic character. When we reconvened for our Saturday shows, I spoke with some of my fellows performers about my ideas, they were very responsive, and others began to similarly tweak what they were doing. Our biggest audience, by far, was for the final show – a Sunday matinee – and I really felt like they got a good show for their money.
I hadn’t done theater in a while, and I had almost forgotten where the real magic of the experience lies. Yes, learning new music and memorizing lines are challenging and worthwhile endeavors – especially in an extremely challenging show like Matilda – but the thing that really makes it special is when everyone comes together as a cohesive unit to form what amounts to a short-term theatrical family.
The Escapologist’s final scene calls for him to cry, and that was something I’d never had to do on command before. For the first five shows I focused on my dad’s deteriorating health as a way to draw forth tears, but as I prepared to step on stage and sing those last few posthumous lines to the character’s daughter, I only had to think about it being the last show.
Sometimes I am acutely aware of how special a moment in time is, and I know that days, weeks and even months will pass quickly, life will bury us in the stuff life buries us with, and that three-week experience will fade away. I did feel the need, however, to take a few minutes to reflect on what turned out to be a special time before it disappears like sandy beach footprints as the tide comes in. It was special to watch my daughter passionately embrace what is currently her life’s ambition. It was special to challenge myself to learn multiple roles in a last-minute kind of way and find ways to make them work. It was also special to work with a group of equally committed parents who were just trying to make sure it didn’t suck for their kids. It was even special to do a few scenes with my wife, though she was constantly frustrated that I don’t speak the language of dance or even remember particular moves very easily. I didn’t sign up for it, after all!
Thanks to everyone who made this a memorable experience. For anyone who has never been involved in a community theater production, I highly recommend it. No matter how good the final product is, the process is definitely worth the time.