Every summer for the past twelve years, a group of eight to ten actors and singers – family, really --have come together to form Theatre on the Lake, or TOTL; and for the past seven seasons (six years), I’ve been privileged to be one of them.
We typically meet somewhere around the last week of June to begin the season. The first week is a scramble of hugs, rehearsals, and equipment set up. The second week is much the same, with the occasional backyard yoga session thrown in for good measure. And then, ready or not, our first show goes up.
I’d say, on average, we have eight to nine days between first read through of a play and first performance. Roughly three of those days are used for blocking. The remaining five or so are used for notes, memorization, technical runs, and figuring out how to speak in an accent (again.) It’s tight, to say the least.
This year we started TOTL on July 1st and finished on August 6th. In that time, we put up a jazzy, musical version of James and the Giant Peach, the Greek tragedy Antigone (hello togas!), and a beautiful translation of The Misanthrope by Richard Wilbur. I can’t even begin to explain how so many lines can fit inside one person’s skull in such a short period of time, not to mention blocking, or in the case of James and the Giant Peach, musical notes. It’s incredible, and it almost makes me believe in spontaneous combustion.
Of course, such a time crunch is also stressful, and dramatic people are... well, dramatic! We have our spats, our differences, our times of stepping on someone else’s lines. And we learn far too intimate knowledge about each other. For instance, I now know who among my cast members has incredibly stinky feet and who prefers not to wear underwear. I know who always drinks coffee before every show (including me) and who always wishes they had gone to the bathroom before the start of the show (also me.)
Our environment also presents challenges, because we perform in a barn. Yes, an actual barn. A literal, horses-used-to-live-here type of barn. The bottom part of the barn is still in use, in fact. The caretakers of the land store snowmobiles, tractors, and various other equipment down there. But the upstairs... We renovate every summer. Still, though, we have incidents. Bats are not an uncommon sighting at one of our shows; a baby bird once fell from the rafters mid-show; and when the rain pours on the metal roofing, it can be deafening, forcing us to pause where we are in the performance. And the backstage and changing area is little more than black cloth stapled up to create a modicum of privacy.
And yet, magic happens in there every summer. Through all the strife, bats, and line memorization, we still create something. Not every night is perfect – not even Broadway can claim that – but there have been times of transcendence. I was told that, after a showing of James and the Giant Peach this summer, a young adopted girl cried in front of her adopted parents for the first time. That’s life changing. That’s the sort of event that girl will always remember, as will her parents, and that’s just one of dozens of stories.
TOTL changes our lives, too. For most of the cast members, performing is only a small subset of our lives. We become performers in the way that our barn becomes a stage. We drop the stoicism of academia and blue collar employment to become actors, to become something and someone apart from every day life in Garrett or Preston County. We get to become different, and feel the love of being surrounded by others who also feel different. It’s a love that’s deep, caring, and joyful.
And at the end of it all, after the last platform has been put away and the barn returns to being a barn and the talk inevitably turns to “when does school start for you?”, we begin to miss each other. Terribly. And start counting the days until next season.