Thursday, April 16, 2015

Giving New Life to The Exhibit

After eight years, I have finally decided to brush the dust off my dissertation play, The Exhibit.

On my way in and out of rehearsals the past several weeks, I was feeling the excitement once again that I had when I first wrote the play. I walked onto the stage to place the charcoals, buttons, fabric, and I questioned why it had taken me so long to step foot on the stage again. But I know the answer. I have just not allowed myself to speak it in public. And with this second life to my first play, it's time.

Many of you know the story. Many of you will not want to hear it again. Some have their own versions. But this one is mine. And I claim it as my own, in my own words.

It was a rainy Thursday night back in 2007. My friend and I had just finished up dress rehearsals and were standing outside a diner at 10pm. We noticed how hard it was raining. One of those fast, pouring, Louisiana rains. What I didn't know was that my friend Shelley was on a highway with her visiting friend heading back from a day of sightseeing.  What I didn't know is that her car had been hit from behind by an impaired driver going to fast. That the car hit a tree head on. That she died instantly.

The next day I was teaching my final drama class, and I saw our graduate advisor pacing outside my door. I thought little of it. When I finished my class, she took me around the corner and told me to sit down. She told me that Shelley was dead.

The next few hours only contain images. Images of her face. Images of standing in the department office. Images of standing in my own office.

I would later be driven to Shelley's house where her roommates were all gathered from across campus. We sat there in the den. At the kitchen table. Shelley had just made Nanaimo bars. They were still sitting on the table.

I don't know how much time passed, but I found myself at a table with her roommates, her friends. Her family was flying in for graduation in a few short days. Her classes had to be wrapped up. Her clothes had to be packed up. And we had to face the truth.

Soon the department head and assistant head were at the table with us. Who could help...who knew where her papers were kept...who would take over the final days of her classes. And then, the topic switched over to the play.

The play.

My friend and I were supposed to be in a play that night.  We had been rehearsing for about a year. It was one-night only.

When you hear about playwrights who see their plays as something that becomes a part of them, like an only child, or an appendage, or part of the soul, this is what it meant to this playwright. This director. And we loved and respected her for that.

But when asked if I could perform that night, I hesitated. I knew what that would mean to the director. I knew, deep down, that this would hurt her. But I also knew that I was hurt. And I asked if I could perform the next night. I needed another day. I couldn't go on.

That one decision would have major repercussions. The time I needed from the loss of my friend would equate to the loss of several more. It divided the cast in two. I lost my mentor, my friend. People closest to me told me their thoughts and feelings. They told me the other people's responses were selfish. Were irrational. Were to be ignored.

But the damage was done. To me. To them. And it was exacerbated when I decided, a few days later, to go on with a staged reading of my dissertation, The Exhibit.

How could I do that? How could I give a reading of my play when I had not done the other one? Meetings were held with the cast without me. My voice was silenced. My story would not be told. The story about how I wanted to do the play the next night. The story about how I didn't go to the department head to "rat" anybody out. The story about how I went in there to talk to her about Shelley's memorial and she closed the door and asked me what was going on with the cast and if we should have a meeting. And how I said I would love that but didn't want to cause anymore trouble. About how I sat in a friend's apartment and cried because the cast met without telling me. Because they were too upset to look at me. To listen to me. To hear me say I was sorry. I was grieving. But they'd say they were, too.

And I've held onto that story publicly for eight years.  And now it's time to let go.  Why? Because I need to. I need to honor Shelley, the play, the time I spent with those cast members, my director and mentor, all of whom I loved.  And it's time to write drama again. It's time to be on the stage again. Because since that time I have not written a new play. I have not allowed myself to enjoy the stage, a place I know and love.

I can't go back and undo the past. And, first and foremost, I would undo the loss of Shelley.

But the losses that I have experienced have made me who I am.  Cliche?  Perhaps. But it's also true. And the older I get, the more I know this hard truth as well: not everyone will approve of your choices. You lose people you love.  Some will come back into your life. Some you will never see again. And that is life.

But tonight, the show will go on.  The lights will come up. My play will find a new voice, new memories.

And for that, I am thankful.  And so, it begins.

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