FROM THE DESK OF Gary Garrison
The Gift of Elijah
I’ve been around the theatre a long, long time – well, almost forty years to be exact. Like so many of you, over those forty years I’ve seen a lot of theatre: high school and college theatre, community theatre, hole-in- the-wall theatre, struggling-to- stay-alive theatre, regional theatre, off-off Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Broadway theatre. And during those same years, I immersed myself in the making of theatre as an actor, dancer, director, choreographer and finally, as a writer.
It’s easy at any point, I guess, but particularly after 40 years, to be sometimes jaded and a little worn with a healthy dose of been-there/done- that/drank-the-Koolaid/bought the t-shirt which I now use to wash my car. But like everyone else, I still get excited to see a masterful new play (like Clybourne Park or Venus in Fur), am more than curious when a Latin superstar is attached to a Broadway revival and enthusiastically anticipate the arrival of a new original musical with a fresh idea (Doug Wright and Amanda Green’s Hands on a Hard Body). But nothing before or after will ever match my reaction to a recent experience I had in the theatre.
A very special person in my life introduced me to a very special person in his life, and she in turn, chatted about the really special people in her life. One of those people was her son – a high school sophomore that LOVES the theatre (you could hear the word in all caps when she spoke about it). As a playwright, actor, aspiring producer and film director, Elijah LOVES all things theatre. He’s a walking encyclopedia for names of artists, producers and productions. He draws his own show posters for the productions he’s seen and those he wants to see. He writes his own plays, acts in his own plays, and by necessity I’m sure, produces his own plays.
As I listened to his mother describe him, I was hit in the gut by something immediate: she could have been describing me when I was fifteen. As she was describing Elijah, I think I flashed back for a nano-second to my own youth, but quickly let the conversation race me back to the present. I mean, after all, that was 40 years ago and I’m such a different person, right?
As the Tony season was ending, and I was counting the days to the beginning of summer, I had one more show to see before I could cast my Tony ballot, Newsies. I went through the Rolodex of my brain, searching for a friend who might enjoy seeing the show. For a whole lot of reasons (some friends don’t like musicals, some friends don’t like Disney, some friends didn’t like the movie, some friends don’t like matinees, some friends don’t like me, blah blah blah) I couldn’t think of anyone. And then I thought to ask Elijah because I knew he’d enjoy it. I didn’t know his taste, but the characters are around his age, most kids loved the movie, and I was betting he was an Alan Menken fan. So I made the invitation.
The day of the matinee I was feeling like – uhm, hmmmm, let’s just say: not good.; my nose was a faucet, I was running a slight fever, I was starting a cold and I felt like I’d been backed over by a taxi a hundred times. Regardless, I drug myself to the theatre because I had to see the show, and I wasn’t about to disappoint Elijah (who I understood was thrilled about seeing the show). As I rounded the corner to the theatre, my feet dragging towards the theatre marquee, I spotted Elijah standing beside his mother. Smiling ear to ear, a beacon lighthouse in each eye and an energy that radiated excitement and a little nervousness from every pore. There was no mistaking him: this was the kid that LOVED theatre. I said, “You must be Elijah.” His energetic respond was, “Yes!” I said, “Are you excited to see the show?” His response was: “I’m sooooo excited to see the show!” I believed him. I know unapologetic truth when I hear it and I saw, in an instance, his love for all things theatre. Something told me right then, right there, this was not going to be my typical day in the theatre.
From the moment we stepped towards the lobby door of the theatre, I could almost feel Elijah’s pulse race and his heart beat faster – it was that palpable. His eyes widened: it seemed like he couldn’t see enough. Was it my imagination or was he counting down the seconds until he could get a program in his hand, study the stage, study the audience, watch the house lights fade and listen to the overture begin? Whatever it was, I was under a spell. I forgot my own junk that I’d carried to the theatre (tired, sick), and for the first time in such a terribly long time, fell in love
with the theatre again by watching an innocent who let the magic of theatre wash over him with complete joy.
Elijah didn’t watch the show from his seat so much as he saw the show perched forward on the first third of his seat – that’s how close to it all he wanted to be. He greeted song after song with enthusiastic (and very genuine) applause; his face was a mirror for the stage: happy when the story was happy, sad when the story took a darker turn. I didn’t have to know one detail of the story to know that Elijah understood it all. He heard every word of the text, every note of music; he saw the detail in the choreography and marveled at the architecture of the set. He was, in a word, a believer.
At the intermission when he, along with other audience members, cheered the cast off for their break, I knew something profound had just happened for me: I was witness to how theatre can transform lives, be it for an hour or for a lifetime. Something caught in my throat (my heart, if you must know) and I knew I couldn’t speak, so I mumbled something to Elijah about hitting the restroom. As I rose out of my seat, he looked at me with a face exploding with happiness and said, “I’m going to get some souvenirs. Do you want anything?” I almost lost it right there. Souvenirs: remembrances that you witnessed something special, something worth remembering, something possibly profound to you. How could I tell this kid that the look on his face was all the souvenir I’d ever need because I’d never forget it?
As I walked away from Elijah I was at war with myself: the intense desire to be a theatre kid again in battle with this old self-aware intellect I’ve drug around, often like a dead weight, for years. Surely there has to be a way to live in that joy again, I kept thinking; surely there has to be a way to reconnect with all the magic that theatre affords you. Can any theatre artist forget the headache and heartache of being an artist in a over-complicated world to rediscover the simple pleasure of life lessons learned through make-believe?
When I returned to my seat after intermission, Elijah was in his seat proudly sporting a newspaper boy’s cap (bought at the concession stand). Already weak in the heart and soul, I had to turn away and choke back a few more tears. “Got the hat, huh?” is all I could manage. “Yeah, and look at this: the poster, the c.d., the souvenir newspaper . . .” displaying what a teen-ager’s savings could afford. Thank God the lights fell for Act Two so I didn’t have to respond because, well, I couldn’t have; I had nothing cogent to say.
When the show ended, and the audience spontaneously rose to its feet to show their appreciation for the gorgeous story-telling we’d all witnessed, I stood next to Elijah, happy to be standing, applauding the effort of so many who had made such an impression on this young man and so many others in the audience. This was a well-deserved standing ovation, and not your obligatory “let’s cheer the television stars for remembering their lines” ovation. More importantly, when I looked at Elijah I saw the thanks he was extending to the cast in his posture, his sincerity, his
enthusiasm and that familiar ear-to-ear smile. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why you stand. This is when you stand; when applause alone isn’t enough.”
When the cast left the stage, and the audience began to leave, Elijah scooped up his show souvenirs, locked eyes with me, and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll never forget this.” I manage to mumble, “Neither will I,” and I knew the truth of what each of us were saying.
I’ve often heard that to see the world through a child’s eyes is profound, and I was blessed with an incredible gift to see my art through a kid’s heart and soul. So in our regional theatre issue, where theatre is everywhere, I challenge you to see our artistry through the eyes of a child. If you let it, it can alter your world in ways you never thought possible, or maybe had just forgotten.