There is no magic quite like that of an empty theater. There are smells, textures, curtains and sawdust, a million shades of black painted over a million other colors that came before. There is expectant silence, and twilight sleepiness. Saying goodbye to an empty theater is akin to tucking a child into bed in the soft glow of night lights, knowing you will leave before she wakes up.
My place of magic was The Beverly Arts Center, a theater space used by various community theater groups on the south side of Chicago. I was a chorus child, an oddball, a laughing extra in period costume and sausage curls created by a neighbor’s mom. I loved every minute of it.
A community theater would perform A Christmas Carol like clockwork every year. It’s where I learned to harmonize to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” while simultaneously learning the ins and outs of theater love, life, and lore. It was Cassie who pushed me out in the snow to do a ritualistic anti-curse when I said the name of the Scottish play without knowing any better (Dear Lord now I know). It’s where Christmas Present gave me a Jiminy Cricket good luck charm and Joe was a jolly Bob Cratchit and the stage manager let us eat the turkey prop after the show if we kids weren’t too annoying in the green room. It’s where a small group of friends bonded over silly tricks and broken hearts, stolen kisses backstage and a brother chipping off his sister’s nail polish.
It was community.
Community theater isn’t quite like any other kind of theater. There’s a switch in priorities, a love, a group bonding over something we would do for free, again and again and again. It means family, loyalty, laughter and support. It means bear hugs after the curtain goes down, story telling at a bar, and the knowledge these people will love you unconditionally as long as you don’t ever skip strike or act like a diva.
It was in this magical place where I felt loved, wanted and accepted. Religious tradition stresses the importance of breaking bread together. Surviving tech week together is a slightly more intense yet equal equivalent.
It’s been a long time since I was able to partake in this crazy Christmas tradition, but every time I hear “Carol of the Bells”, I feel a piece of the magic come back again. The bells remind me that during that special time God really did bless us, every one.