Last weekend, the theatre department at University of Puget Sound where I received my BA in Theater honored Professor Geoff Proehl who is retiring after 25 years there. I sat next to old friends in the Norton Clapp theatre, listening to Geoff’s colleagues past and present speak about their time with him and watching former students recreate scenes from plays Geoff had directed over the years. I so wanted to get on that stage. I wanted to raise up the ghost of every single production I had been a part of there and watch moments from each in tableaux.
I went back to a couple moments in my mind. The scene at Jezebel’s from Handmaid’s Tale, dancing in a cheerleader costume. Act One of Top Girls, sitting at the table of great women as Pope Joan. Act One of Our Town, standing on the ladder as Emily, talking to George in the house over and, later, waiting in the wings at the top of the third act, Sarah MacLachlan playing, making us all want to sob buckets. My friends sitting in chairs representing dead townsfolk in the town cemetery. Walking in…being dead and then going back to living, the day of my twelfth birthday. “Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?” I could hear Pannill, who played my father, calling that line as clear as day in my head.
There was a taste of that going-back moment from Our Town in the theatre, but we were still alive. It’s very hard to put into words, and perhaps I’m wrong to assume we all felt the same thing, but it was something like holding a beating heart in your hands. It’s a little too much. You feel awe, tenderness, sadness, and also a sense that it might, it will, at any moment, slip away from you.
The fact was back then most of us weren’t after some particular professional goal in the performing arts, not like you see at other schools. Many of us had not come to UPS to be theatre majors. We just found the theatre department and couldn’t leave. We loved making those plays together too much. Creating a vision together. I guess we must all have been looking for a family too — and we got that. But it was also more than that. It was really pure, a lot of it. A desire to represent a truth we felt about life and being human, a desire to push outside the bounds of polite society, of typical conceptions of success, to be artistically adventurous. I think we were artists, and theatre was the medium we found; for some it would be forever, for others it was just for that time.
The beautiful thing in college is you get to keep making theatre with these people you love over and over again for four years. I think most of us pursued it more because of that than for our own personal drive. But Geoff was the reason it could be like that. He created the space. He set the tone, he helped us touch that experience of living so transparently with/to one another. I don’t think there is a more holy space to me than that stage. It’s my ur-stage. A place that will always be present in my dreams. During Geoff’s program, I kept staring at the voms, I longed only to stand in them. That waiting to enter, in dim light, felt like everything.
The world seems most of the time to ask so little of us, such a shallow level of engagement, such a little amount of courage. The stage asks much more. I think we at UPS all longed for that: a place to be more human. To feel loudly, to show off big, to desire passionately, to spit at the shit of the world, to try to break through, to dredge out what was buried deepest inside of us and show it, good or bad, in the light. That’s the beauty of the actor, that they want to do that. It still brings me to tears today when I see that kind of actor. They’re doing it for themselves, but they’re also doing it for us, being courageous for us, so we might be.
Maybe in a perfect society there would be no need for theatre, but probably there would. Real life demands stability and repetition and, as a result, a kind of mold grows over our existence, cushioning our skins and hearts against life’s texture. Good theatre rips that all off. You know it when you feel it. Your heart goes up in your throat, your eyes get bigger, you get shivers, you might even cry without knowing exactly why.
It can be lonely to long for the rawness of life among people who are happily buried in their layers (Suddenly, Happy Days comes to mind…). So it was good, so good to be among those people who had been, twenty years ago, so similarly dissatisfied with that way of life, who were not thinking too much or at all about jobs during their four years in college, who really followed their hearts. And I do believe deep down that people like this are everywhere, waiting to be given the courage to climb out, the faith to know it’s not unsafe and that that space, outside the cushion of habit, is where real life happens. I fear so many people’s lives, at a certain point of stability, maybe around middle age, devolve into strategy. Strategy. Life gets easy enough that we can master it and “win.” But the truth is that win or lose at that game, we’re left with nothing in the end.
I wrote a play called Losing the Game in my MFA program a couple years after UPS, I guess because I was obsessed with this idea of us all being caught in an unspoken game. Well, at 40, I know now the game will never go away, there will always be plenty who want to play and, frankly, we all have to play, to an extent. (I’m picturing myself tossing a die half-heartedly.) But I also know with unshaken faith that there’s a much bigger realness all around us and, for me, theatre helps me get at it. I need that. And though I would love to write a play that premieres on Broadway (and, believe me, I hope I can write it, I’ll let you know when the script is ready) what matters more is that I can keep getting at that bigger world with groups of people who want that too. And since college, I’ve done it, and though my life circumstances are about to change in a big way and there are many unknowns, I want to do it again.
This revisitation, this honoring of Geoff and reconnecting with my theatre siblings of those tender years, fills me up with energy to make it happen again. And to know exactly why I need to. Thank you, Geoff. Thank you, precious friends. Thank you, Norton Clapp theatre. Amen.