San Angelo is little university town deep (very deep) in the heart of the heart of Texas. Until last week, I had never even heard of it, but since I was invited to go there, I went. Why? The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival held its regional gathering and I was invited to attend along with a group of Southeastern Louisiana University students who would be performing pieces from my first musical play, High and Mighty. How could I decline an invitation that included the words Kennedy Center in the verbiage? I couldnâ€™t, so off I went prepared to watch, learn, listen and teach. Also included in the week of plays, seminars and contests were opportunities to meet and greet other theatre lifers, such as liâ€™l ole me. Some of these thespians were young enough to be my children, some were old enough to be my parents, but somehow, we were all the same, sitting in darkened theaters or poorly lit rehearsal rooms, loving/hating/questioning a performance, script or process. Truth be told, most of the attendees were students, so my actual peers were the minority, which was somewhat liberating. I could move inconspicuously, incognito. I could come and go without being noticed. If I wanted to go back to my hotel room to eat Skittles and read my favorite new book, Hamilton (of course), I couldâ€¦and did, actually. I would not lose points or be reprimanded. People just seemed to be happy to see me when and if they did.
After spending three and a half exhausting days together, the Southeastern group of young actors gathered together to, one last time, perform the two opening musical numbers from my script. Members of the original production and design team were all there as well. In rehearsal, we watched and listened as the students marked the numbers in a pseudo cue to cue rehearsal prior to opening the house to the audience. About fifteen minutes before the students were called to their places, we all gathered outside the building, standing in a circle, holding hands. Each cast member was given the opportunity to say a few words about the show and what it meant to them. We had all grown to know and love each other in the way that only performers and, perhaps, team athletes can. During the run of the show, these actors had come to fully trust each other and push each other to their maximum potentials, with respect. Actors who had never dared to sing in a musical had to belt out notes and lyrics knowing that the person across the stage from them had been formally training, vocally, for years. Singers who had never been taught to fully develop a character were standing next to actors who had been studying characterization and physicality since high school. These dynamics are fertile ground for insecurity and jealously, but those demons were not invited into this circle. Instead, I witnessed nothing but spunky, gentle, loving support firing in every direction. As this cast shared their final thoughts with each other -â€œbest thing that has happened to me at Southeasternâ€¦..this show has changed my lifeâ€¦..I have learned so muchâ€¦..letâ€™s make this time the best one everâ€¦.. one last time!â€
Michelle was the first one who started taking light-footed jumps as she chanted. â€œOne more time! One more time! One more time!â€ Then Jamie joined her, followed by Olivia. Soon the others dove in until our little circle was a single unit of rhythm, a united front, a single purposed organism, jumping together to the words, hands still held tightly.
â€œOne more time! One more time! One more time!â€
When the volume and energy reached itâ€™s pinnacle, they broke with hoots and yahoos, as though preparing to sprint onto the field for the Super Bowl. They were bulls in a pen, scraping the dirt with anticipation. It was one of the most fascinating and inspiring things I have ever been a part of and I knew that this circle would never leave me. Their performance was riveting, even for me, and I have seen it countless times.
The next day, we all began to drift in different directions as the festival wound down. Some people departed for home a day early. I could feel the air quietly escaping our collective balloon. That evening, the production received exactly three awards of recognition from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region 6. Early the following day, we all hit the road or the air, heading back to our real lives and routines. That was almost a week ago, and I am now back into my daily familiars; not a bad thing. Still, I will never forget these performers who are now my friends. Even after they are long removed from my presence, I will hold them close to my heart. They gave me a gift that I can never adequately described, but unquestionably, it is one that will stay with me forever. I cannot wait to see what they each do next, for every positive experience is a mere stepping stone to something else, isnâ€™t it? Maybe my play will get another production. Another place, another time. I hope so. One more time. Still, nothing will ever top High and Mighty 2015. She was one of a kind.