“There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” – John 6:9
It’s the smell of paint, cheap black paint, that brings me to a place I love. I was smelling it now as I carried in the last load of costumes and sank quietly into the blue “Hamlet” chair piled up with all the other chairs in the corner. And I marveled. The remnants of my entire theater company fit into this very small space.
The room was alive with the musty scent of memories. Ghosts of performances past flitted among the racks of costumes floating in the breeze from the open window. I remembered faces. Young, laughing, piquant faces chattering away as only teenagers can, half dressed in ancient finery and crowns, lounging on windowsills practicing lines, gossiping like happy magpies, or waging all-out war with plastic swords. This was my motley ensemble, these lovely, exasperating, gloriously creative teens who would one by one move on to college, the future, love, marriage, and children of their own. I remember hugging them farewell, each one, thanking them for giving me their hearts for a while.
I felt heavy with sweet but aching nostalgia. I am at an age where this must be so, this weight of nostalgia. What was it all for? we ask our older selves, not always with regret but with an eye towards understanding our place in providence. What was it for, this small theater company that ran ten years strong? I asked that question to the walls of this tiny storage room and they seemed to laugh back at me, “Well, it certainly wasn’t for fame and fortune.” True, I laughed back.
There was a time I had high ambitions for a grand, Catholic theater revival where I would bring beauty, goodness, and truth to the world through the acted word. I dreamed of stages, lighting systems, gorgeous costumes – starting small, yes, but not small for long. The world was waiting for the transforming power of theater, and I was going to set the world ablaze with it or die trying. Alas, my ambition never grew beyond small stages, small ensembles, small high schools, small budgets, no budgets. I never even achieved the dream of a proper set of theater lights – up until the end we used two duct taped workman lights and a flashlight for “special effects”. We cajoled our way into school basements, Presbyterian sanctuaries, yards, venues no bigger than a postage stamp. We ransacked living rooms for furniture. If we gathered one hundred people on opening night, we considered it a packed house. We flew by the proverbial seat of our pants. Greatness, by any stretch of the imagination, was never achieved.
As the years went on and we were some twenty odd plays in, I wondered if there might be something different at work here; a different sort of greatness, the kind that surprisingly awaits us at the end of a poor little way, lit by very poor lighting. I slowly began to discover the freedom of poverty. When you are small and poor, suddenly the art becomes enormous and beautiful. It takes its place at the center of things. I didn’t need to worry about pleasing crowds, filling the box office, keeping my reputation, pandering to patrons who always have an opinion as how things should be done – indifferent critics waiting with pencils poised for the least mistake. Our “critics” were mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, and the good-hearted parish priest who let us use the stage in his cafeteria and showed up heroically for every single performance. You could never find a more appreciative and willing audience than this. They willed us to succeed.
The beauty of what we were doing began to take center stage. My heart began to open to possibilities unhampered by ambition. I persistently sought greatness in the art of theater and these mere children were carried along most willingly in my enthusiasm, and they caught fire. Because we were small and pretty much unknown, I could try things, things unheard of. I could experiment, and I did. I threw at these mere fifteen year old puppies Shakespeare’s unabridged Julius Caesar, Romeo, Juliet, Puck, St. Thomas More, T.S. Eliot, Pride and Prejudice just to see what would happen, and they took up the gauntlet each time and ran with it. They began to paint sets with their own designs, they composed the musical scores for each play, one young man even cheekily asked if he could rewrite Dracula the way it was supposed to be written, and we performed it. Another student who was doing a class at a technical high school, asked if he could make the swords for the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet. They begged to light the stage with just candles once. And I said yes… and asked permission after the fact. I had new drama dads who showed up with their toolboxes asking if they could help with anything. They were put to work inventing water pumps (with running water, mind you), a nine foot in diameter Death Star, a two-story house. They gathered in little knots puzzling out the challenge with power drills at the ready. People donated all kinds of odds and ends. We became regulars at the local thrift store and achieved preferred customer status at half-price Wednesdays! We were one, huge, theatrical experiment exploding in a very small space.
Every single opening night I sat there manning the workman’s lights in the darkness at stage left, watching the magic unfold before me. I saw all these amazing young men and women releasing their raw and genuine emotions so pure and strong and beautiful with uninhibited joy. I saw their wit and glorious sense of comedic timing. I saw little girls in the front row of audiences completely enchanted by dancing fairies, I saw moms on the edges of their seats waiting for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to embrace at last, sighing that, “It just never got old.” At curtain call my motley ensemble came out and bowed in exhausted glee on stages that would not quite hold the lot of them. I loved them so at that moment, I loved what we were, what we did, how we all felt one great rush of thespian exultation when a performance ended brilliantly. This. This was greatness. The greatness of the little way. The joy of art for art’s sake with no other ambition than that it should shine and be in us.
My own joy in this tiny, poorly lit theater experiment can be summed up in the words of a dad who turned to me at the end of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. His son had played St. Thomas Becket. All he could do was stammer out, “My son did that? My son did that!” in wondering gratitude to me. This is why theater exists – that sons amaze their fathers, that wonder seeps into hearts, that mere children prove their greatness when given the chance, that human creativity exists in the smallest, most cramped spaces and looms large with possibility, that a mere hundred people go their way with a new sense of the beautiful.
I learned that Beauty goes where she will. She is not married to worldly greatness. She trips lightly along her own way. She danced with us on our small but important artistic journey for the glory of God. She embraced my determined ambition and transformed it into gratitude for the little way I had been asked to walk. And that is what God was waiting for. I offered him at last my very small basket of sweet-faced, energetic, young “fish” wondering what good “these few would be among so many”. He blessed them and told me to distribute them to the world with all they had learned and loved from my small theater company. That was my simple task in His wonderful providence. And I believe those fish will feed a large and hungry world with the beauty they received, and the beauty they will give, blessed by the hand of Him from Whom all beauty springs.
I closed the door to my small, musty, nostalgia-filled storeroom. I took one last whiff of cheap, black paint, and I breathed out my heartfelt Deo Gratias for my small part in His plan. I could think of no higher ambition than that.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.