What Does it All Mean?
by Marvin Payne
Okay, so what does it all mean? Two and a half hours after a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of tickets have been gleefully ripped in half, and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of lights are cooling above a dark stage adorned with three thousand dollars’ worth of painted magic from a Siamese palace floor, and dozens of actors and dancers are back in their dressing rooms peeling off several hundred dollars’ worth of make-up, and the leading man is reveling in the novel luxury of knowing there is finally five dollars on his debit card so he can stop at the gas station on his way home, what does it all mean?
I’m doing The King and I at the Hale Centre Theatre in Salt Lake. (We in the theatre end as many words as we can with “re” instead of “er.” It lends a certain cache of “smartier les pantez” to what we do. Incidentally, this Hale Centre Theatre is the famous theatre with the stage that revolves, rises, gyrates, and minces with wimples and crisping pins and round tires like the moon. Last week in rehearsal we had to throw out a couple of spies from NASA who were posing as Buddhist monks. They had miniature cameras embedded in their tambourines. The week before, we caught one who was disguised as an ushre. I’m actually writing this on opening night, er, opening day–I mean, two matinees and then an evening performance. This is between the first and second show. We’re not alone in this marathon–there are, of course, costumres, stagehands, paramedics, and an on-call mortician.) Last night at dress rehearsal I was out on stage lying on the king’s death bed (I think I had already died, so it didn’t interfere with my acting) and began thinking, “What does it all mean?”
I don’t mind sending an audience out of the theatre after an evening of color (“colre?” …naw) and music, wherein their senses and emotions have been pummeled and stretched like dough, and they’re halfway home and suddenly asking each other, “Hey Fern, it sure was fun, but, you know, what did it all mean?” And Fern says, “I’m not sure, LaVerl, but I sort of feel like bread.” And LaVerl says, “Well, would you like to talk about it?” (This precise question is one that LaVerl, under normal circumstances, would be about as likely to ask as to, let us say, conduct the New York Philharmonic, or play in an NBA championship game–wait, Tyler Hornacek’s in the cast and his dad Jeff will doubtless be in our audience as well, so forget that last example.)
…Well, took a break to play the first half of the second show, but now it’s the Uncle Tom ballet which is about an hour long (but way glorious), so I can write some more. Sometimes playwrights will send folks out the door asking LaVerl’s question, and feel like they’ve done something wonderful. Trouble is, often there’s not really an answer, which I think is kind of a bad joke, especially when a play pretends to mean a lot. This King And I play has an answer, but it’s not an easy answer. Of course, this isn’t Shakespeare–I mean, my character parades around like pretty much of a jerk most of the time, and the playwrights had to give one of his more sympathetic wives a song in which she assures everybody that I’m wonderful, in spite of the behavior they’ve been watching for about an hour-and-a-half so far. But there is beauty in jerks who don’t want to be jerks. Still, that’s not what it all means–there’s a lot more to the tapestry, and you have to grab the fabric and rub it between your fingers and drape it over your own shoulders before you’ll feel anything like a worthy answer coming to you.
(I was involved in a live television promotion of the play yesterday ((5:30 AM! One of our actresses is now in the hospital. Who on earth watches TV that early? Well, after about an hour of this madness, I was walking by the scene shop and heard somebody pounding on the loading dock door. It was a guy delivering dry ice for the opening ship scene. I signed for it, barefoot and wearing my brocade pj’s and a couple of pounds of jewelry, and he said, “Saw you a few minutes ago on TV.” So there you are.)) where we were to play several scenes and be interviewed, interspersed with the weather, reports on local scandals, announcements of the day’s assassinations, commercials for appearance perfecters, and encouragements to watch “American Idiot,” or something like that. I was hustling to get this “What does it all mean?” question answered in my mind so I wouldn’t seem stupid in the interview part. Instead, the guy just asked, “So, did you shave your head just for this show?” I already knew the answer to that.)
Every day I discover more of what it may all mean, stuff about pride surrendering to need, about need making space for love, about respect flowering into reverence, about people risking their very lives in the terrifying adventure of becoming honest. But there may be more meanings. Simple meanings like making room in our lives for magic. I’m not talking about the tricks of Harry Houdini or the fiction of Harry Potter, but the un-tricked nonfictional magic of wonder and imagination. There is wonder in discovering that when your eyebrows are half shaved off and make-up gives you features you never had before and there’s an earring hanging from your ear (hurts like heck!) and a whip in your hand and your bare (also shaved) chest is nekid to the world (which, as Marvin, you would have been cripplingly embarrassed about, but as Phra Meha Mongut it’s all in a day’s work), you become capable of feeling the inner warfare of a feudal monarch otherwise unreachably remote. It’s all a little like Frosty the Snowman’s hat: “When they put it on his head, he began to dance around!”
Megan Robinson and Camron Winn munch cheese fries in the green room, a high school junior and a television professional, respectively. Then they mysteriously transform into stunning Siamese dancers, double-cast as the waif Eliza, elegant and powerful icon for oppressed womanhood in the Uncle Tom ballet. For them, stepping into the world of wonder-magic isn’t an accident of whimsy, boredom, or curiosity, but the calculated leap for which they’ve trained like Olympians for years. Magic, for them, isn’t a diversion, but a discipline.
Things of this sort happen in theatre with astounding frequency. Our (way cool) costumes come from lots of places. Many were built by our most excellent designer, others were rented from around the country, some were inherited from theatres long ago abandoned to the ghosts of stagehands. The other day Andrea Gritton, a dancer, took off one of her costumes and was hanging it up and noticed the name “Dixie Stallings” written neatly in ball-point pen on the inside of the red jacket. I’m willing to bet that in your particular neighborhood the Dixie Stallings’s could be counted on the fingers of one foot. But Dixie Stallings is the maiden name of Andrea’s very only mother. She phoned her mother and told her the story. Dixie asked, “Is it red?” She’d worn that costume as a dancer in the show Kismet forty years ago. This is stronger magic than that which inhabits the Whomping Willow. This is a glimpse of the Unicorn. Andrea was entitled to this arc with her mother because she had ventured into the magic wood, where her mother, too, had felt safe to wander.
Some people don’t feel safe there, and it’s sad.
My pioneer great-great grandfather, John Brown, as Brigham Young’s scout, stood on Big Mountain on July 19th, 1847, the first of the Mormon pioneers to see into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. He and his mule, Zeke, trekked across the plains a dozen more times after that, helping people pursue their dreams in the West. His sweat and spirit is in the soil of the promised land.
He knew the hard realities of taming a wilderness, and yet he said the most amazing thing. He said, “I am building castles in the air, and inspecting those others have built. One can almost convert imagination into reality. What a happy faculty!” When I read that in his journal, I suddenly realized how the pioneering of the West could not have been done without enormous imagination. And thinking that these remote and ragged mountain valleys might become a light unto the world took even more imagination.
I have an artist friend, Mark England, who, with precisely that quality of faithful imagination, last summer created a compass of rough granite boulders on an edge of the Alpine City park. People were invited to place their own boulders radiating outward from this compass to places that had meaning to them, places their grandparents had come from, places they wanted their children to go. It was a way to tie our town, where our hearts are centered, to our memories and to our dreams, however distant. My little daughter rolled a rock to a place in the park that she imagined would define a line leading to the Salt Lake Temple, pointing to the path that was taken over the hills every week by the wooden-legged Alpine pioneer who carved on the temple’s east face the words “Holiness To The Lord.” Every time Caitlin moves among those rocks, her mind is turned to holy dreams.
But a few mornings ago, I suddenly heard the front-end loader rumbling two blocks away in the city park, removing the rocks. And why did they go? Just enough people with not enough imagination. I guess we have a low tolerance for castles in the air if we can’t see that they’re built to code, built to the code of what we have come to expect of ourselves, which is so far less than what the pioneers expected of us.
Well, with the brilliant director Ben Lokey as our captain (flown in from Biloxi! Just for this show! No, really, he’s way good), flanked by my glorious Annas, Jennie Whitlock and Diana Bowler, and trailing a couple dozen delicious wives and lovely children, not to mention brawny slaves, Kralahomes (wouldn’t you like to be a Kralahome when you grow up?), dead lovers, and a couple of bewildered Europeans, I find myself tiptoeing barefoot along the trail of dreams, and sense the resurrection of imagination in the shadows all around us.
“Make-believe” is a way to make belief. Which we tend to agree is a good thing. And when you risk living magically, everything is bettre. Remembre that.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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