"What? She gets turned into a tree?!" the young man exclaimed one evening at rehearsal. We were about three weeks into preparing for a community theatrical production and this youth was among the cast members who were just discovering the plot of the play.

A few weeks earlier I was sitting beside my daughter awaiting my turn to audition, telling myself that I wasn't nervous. Although my number was well prepared and I knew the judges personally, it had been more than three decades since I had tried out for a play. If I didn't at least land a position in the ensemble, I could live with not sharing a theatrical experience with my daughter. But somehow there were still a few butterflies in my stomach.

My fears were unfounded. The audition went well, but pretty much everyone who tried out got some kind of position in the cast. Some later quit for various reasons. We ended up with about 70 regular cast members and an equal number of children's chorus members. Most of the regular cast members were in their mid-teens to mid-20s. A handful of us were more seasoned. Despite the cast being comprised of anyone who wanted to be in the play, the level of talent among cast members was astounding, especially for community theater.

Being the oldest person in the cast (in the entire production, actually), I began to suspect that acting in live theater is a young person's avocation. Especially after some 3½-hour rehearsals where we practiced high energy islander dance moves over and over. I am literally old enough to be my daughter's grandfather. I have contemporaries who have grandchildren that are older than my daughter. Despite my personal rigorous daily exercise routine, I experienced my share of sore muscles and aching joints.

The funny thing about this is that I have been telling my wife ever since we met decades ago that I can't dance. She grew up dancing and cajoled me into taking ballroom dance lessons after we got married. I can sort of lead, if she will tell me what to do next. But dancing doesn't come naturally to me. It's frankly kind of nerve wracking.

Dancing in our theatrical production was different because I was told exactly what to do. We had a very talented choreographer/dance director, and he had a very talented assistant. Amazing people. Quite honestly, I had no idea how I could do some of the moves the first time they were introduced. But weeks of doing them over and over produced a sort of muscle memory that eventually allowed me to whip out relatively complex dance moves without even thinking about it.

Singing came much more naturally to me. I have been singing for a long time. And while I may not have a great solo voice, I can get by. I had previously worked with our phenomenal music director. She has the rare ability to consistently get people of all ages to perform at levels they didn't think possible.

We would usually work through our vocal parts in one rehearsal and then introduce the related dance routines in another rehearsal. Yet later we would put the singing and dancing together. That turned out to be quite challenging for me. But after weeks of repetition it seemed odd to sing a number without doing the related dance moves. Adding acting to the mix provided another layer of challenge, but even that became routine after awhile.

Many community theater productions are approached with a certain laxness. That is not the case with our director, whom I have known ever since he was one of my Order of the Arrow Scouts years ago. I think he is the hardest working person I have ever known in theater. He harbors a somewhat unique blend of talent, expertise, vision, leadership, and dedication. His productions are fun but very demanding.

Months earlier the community had decided to produce the play Once On This Island. This is a great play for community theater because, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, it is mostly music with very little dialogue and you can put a lot of people on stage. Our script was closer to the original 1990-91 Broadway version rather than the revival version that is currently playing on Broadway to rave reviews.

The protagonist in OOTI is a young peasant woman named Ti Moune. When my wonderfully supportive wife understood the plot, she drolly said, "So let me get this straight. You are doing a play about a group of villagers comforting a scared little girl by telling her a story about a stalker girl who commits suicide after her dreams for love are dashed, and who then gets turned into a tree." I replied, "Yeah, pretty much."

But this isn't the message of the play. Witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter present many fun and interesting elements, but they're not the message of the series. They simply supply a framework for the real messages that revolve around choosing the right, loyalty to good people and causes, and coming to terms with our own mortality.

In a similar fashion, the story, music, dancing, and costumes in OOTI provide a framework for commentary on love, race and class. As permitted by the script, our community implementation dropped the racial focus to center on class. While racial issues are important, our community's population is 0.6% black (see North Ogden stats). We couldn't field a cast that would work with the script's racial requirements. Our community's racial mix is a salient issue itself, but that's not going to be resolved by a theatrical production.

That's not to say that our production has been free of controversy. The conundrum hasn't been about race, but about the city's new amphitheater, which has essentially been christened by our production. For years the city had a tiny concrete slab for a stage in an outdoor amphitheater set in a beautiful park near my home. Over the years there have been a few shows there. The annual July 4 fireworks celebration, however, has put a lot of pressure on the surrounding residents, as well as the residential infrastructure that was never designed to handle large events.

The park came about when a local farmer couple (friends of ours) sold the property to the city at a cut rate two decades ago with several stipulations about its future use, hoping to maintain green space. Three years ago the city formed a committee to develop a vision for the park. The mixed group of citizens and officials eventually came up with a master plan for the park. One of the features the committee proposed was a much grander amphitheater.

Plans for the amphitheater moved apace partially because funding became available earlier than expected. Although more than 20 public meetings were held about the matter, nearby residents were caught off guard when construction suddenly began in November last year. As the project progressed, some residents became alarmed at the scope of the project and suddenly became very active in opposing it, based on the original agreements about usage of the park.

The trouble was that things were too far along to make major changes at that point. Although I have several concerns with the project, I declined to sign the petition asking that the project be stopped and reworked. Despite my respect for the opponents (many of whom are friends I know and love) and my empathy for many of their concerns, their request to stop the project seemed infeasible.

Following unsatisfactory meetings with city officials, my friends filed a lawsuit based on their belief that the amphitheater violated the stipulations in the park's deed. The legal process took long enough that the project was very far along by the time a judge ruled against a temporary injunction seeking to halt the project. My personal concerns revolve more around taxation, insufficient infrastructure and parking, and the possibility (based on care of the city's current recreational facilities) that maintenance of the facility might be less than adequate.

But I live a block and a half away, not right across the street from the venue. Many of the concerns of those that live adjacent to the new facility are valid. City officials are now trying to resolve many issues that should have been addressed well before architects began to design the new amphitheater, and which would have changed the nature and scope of the project. It's an unfortunate situation that is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

In the meantime, my daughter and I had been cast in roles in the play that was scheduled to be the first theatrical production on the new stage. We had been rehearsing at the city's senior center and at the local high school. The amphitheater project was behind schedule, as is often the case with projects of this nature. When we first began rehearsals on site we were rehearsing in an active construction zone. Although the workers put in overtime to finally get the stage ready in the nick of time, work continues on the beautiful facility even after the run of the play.
Future phases of the project are slated to include fixed seating, quality lighting and sound, and completed dressing rooms and shops. The building is pretty much an empty shell at present. These phases will be done as funding becomes available.

It took me quite a while to warm up to the idea of auditioning for the play in the first place, since I had some clue about how much time and effort would be involved. But my daughter wanted to be in the play. And after contemplating my wife's observation that I had done a lot more with our four sons during their early and mid-teen years than I had done with our daughter (see my 5/16/18 post), I kept feeling a whisper in the back of my mind telling me that I needed to share this experience with our daughter.

There were a dozen other parents involved in the play along with with one or more of their children. So I was not alone. More than two months of rigorous rehearsals led to the first of our five performances. Four of the shows sold out and they even ended up adding a special encore performance due to demand. While our director initially worried about breaking even, he reported to the city council last night that the show cleared a decent profit that will go into the city's arts budget.

Some of my neighbors were surprised to see me act in the play. But I have long harbored an enjoyment of being involved in live theater. It had just been a long time since that enjoyment had taken me onto the stage itself.

My daughter and I now have another shared experience under our belts; a demanding experience that lasted three months. It was amazing to work with so many talented people, some of whom have divers world views and most of whom were decades younger than me. It made me feel a lot younger, especially when I had to keep up with them. Despite the size of our cast, I learned the name of each member of our cast and crew, each of whom I have grown to respect and love.
Many of the people who saw our play loved it. But more than a few had the same response as did my young fellow cast member about the protagonist being turned into a tree. This plot device would have been easily recognized as a symbol of the tree of life by people in the culture being portrayed. Many cultures have tales about a female, who is capable of literally spawning human life, transforming into the tree of life to bring about renewal and healing. So it is with OOTI.

Toward the end of the show we sang a number called Why We Tell the Story. One of the final messages in the song includes the following lines:

So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow.
It will help your heart remember and relive.
It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow
For out of what we live and we believe,
Our lives become the stories that we weave.

A friend who played Asaka in our play (see Broadway version) said that she thought she was years past being able to do live theater before her kids talked her into auditioning. She wrote, "I overcame all my fears of getting up in front of people. I worked at getting my voice back. I even lost [weight]. It gave me back.....something....I don't even know what that something even is, but I know there is something in me that is better."

That's how I feel too. I am a different person than I was three months ago. Something in me is better. And this is why we tell the story.
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