Op/Ed

Faith Gong: The Show Must Go On

When I was in school, I was a theater kid.

We called ourselves “Drama Queers,” which is probably no longer acceptable — but this was the 1990s. The label conveyed our pride in being different, quirky, set apart. In a suburban high school where most of our classmates spent afterschool hours zipping around the playing fields, we “DQs” sequestered ourselves in the windowless box of the theater and attempted to embody characters that were not ourselves.

I’ll be honest: I was not a great thespian. I played a lot of “citizens” — background extras who responded to the main action. But I was better at theater than I was at sports — and I loved it. Pouring myself into somebody I wasn’t, dressing up, the camaraderie of making a story come alive onstage, the applause; theater involved all the teamwork and creativity of sports, without the need for physical coordination. (Although I did suffer a sports injury — a torn ACL — while “walking the plank” off the stage as Pirate Starkey in a production of Peter Pan).

By the end of high school my tenacity was rewarded with a smattering of lead roles, but in college I was back to “citizen” status. For my final production, I wasn’t onstage at all, but was asked to serve as stage manager. I did this job well; the organizational skills required came to me more naturally than acting. It was, in fact, a version of what I do now in my everyday life: making sure everyone is where they need to be and has what they need to have. But I wasn’t as passionate about stage managing as I was about acting, so I let the curtain fall on my theatrical aspirations.

When I found myself stage managing my crew of five children, all of whom are diminutive of stature and full of drama, I expected that they’d gravitate to theater the way I had. I was wrong. It’s too soon to tell which way our littlest guy will go, but our four older children performed in a handful of community productions when they were young, and then landed firmly in the world of sports. They’ll put on performances for our family and make movies with friends, and then they’re off to field hockey, skiing, and track practice.

But this year, my two oldest daughters are attending a school at which it is the custom every spring for the entire (tiny) student body to write, produce, and perform an original play. For the past two years this play has not taken place due to a certain pandemic, so it was a BIG DEAL when plans for the play got underway after the winter vacation.

The amount of effort required was mind-boggling: Twenty-seven middle school students had to create characters, devise a plotline for those characters, co-author a script, and bring the play to life with costumes, scenery, lighting, and music. This coincided with the school district lifting mask requirements: a joyful event that became a point of anxiety in our daughters’ school as the performance dates approached. Communications from the school became full of all-caps commands: STAY HEALTHY!!! DO NOT GET SICK!!!!

I am a rule-follower by nature, so I wanted very much to keep the seven people in my household healthy in the days leading up to the play. But there are seven people in my house who go out to jobs and school and activities, who have been diligent about masking for two years, and who just wanted to bask in the hopefulness of spring and lower COVID case counts.

Multiply this by twenty-seven families: Everyone got sick.

That sounds hyperbolic, like something my middle school daughters would — and, in fact, did, say: “EVERYONE is sick!” But it wasn’t far from the truth. A teacher at the school told me that, since the winter holidays, there was only one day when all the students were at school. That’s problematic when the cast of the play is all the students.

In the week leading up to the play — a grueling week in which regular classes were largely suspended in favor of rehearsals — students started dropping like flies. The culprit was not COVID, but a nasty respiratory bug that seemed to have a stomach component for some unlucky victims. Or maybe it was multiple bugs. In any case, it tore through the students, and it tore through our family.

In all my years of doing theater, I can’t remember illness ever being of great concern. I’m sure people got sick, but not in mass numbers. I don’t ever recall anybody getting sick enough on performance dates to call in an understudy. Even after I tore my ACL in Peter Pan, I went onstage (on crutches) the next night. The show must go on.

And the show did go on. On opening night my daughters were not at peak health, but they were well enough to go onstage propped up by ibuprofen, cough drops, and saltwater gargle. The same was true of many of their peers. Two students were too ill to go on and were replaced by an intrepid younger sibling and a school alum. One key character went onstage while burning up with fever.

The play that they created, Back to Eden, was an epic and hilarious fable about a group of children from the town of “Little Hope,” who end up being recruited — by God herself — to attend “Camp Eden,” where everyone hopes things will go more smoothly than the first time around. Things fall apart, and in the fallout the children learn big lessons about forgiveness, rules, family, and how to be in the world.

Attending both performances as a parent, I knew the backstory: All the hours and effort that teachers, students, and parents had put into this play. And I knew that the cast onstage, acting through illness to bring this story to life, was in fact a bruised, bloodied, and brave band of young warriors.

There are two ways I could end this. The first would be to lament the ways in which we push ourselves — and our kids — into a performative, “show must go on” mentality. Surely those sick students should have been allowed to rest, rather than to persevere for the sake of a play. What about self-care?

I am all for stepping off the treadmill of performance and people-pleasing, and I certainly encouraged my daughters to do nothing but rest in between performances. But I think I prefer the second ending: That sometimes, when a community works together to produce something beautiful and important, that thing becomes greater than the temporary discomforts of individuals. This is true of religious and political movements, it’s true of sports, and it’s certainly true of theater; a group of twenty-seven students just proved it.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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