Tuesday, December 28, 2010

COLUMN: Back to the Manger

"The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life."

The legendary Oscar Wilde uttered those words in 1885, and ne'er have they rung more true than today. Every weekend, countless performances come to us courtesy of our local theatre scene. Our area perfoming arts collective is a culturally-rewarding underground zeitgeist of passion, sweat, tears, and joy.

Still, for all of the great dramatic fare that graces our local stages, rare is it when a performance comes along that transcends the stage and becomes a living embodiment of pure art. A dramatic presentation so moving, so full of emotional depth that those lucky enough to be in attendance will be fundamentally changed as people forever.

I refer, of course, to this season's most sought-after ticket: Morning Star Academy's K-6 2010 Christmas Program, the epic saga "Back to the Manger."

There's no arguing that this musical tour de force was THE greatest stage production in the history of human existence, but now we acclaimed critics of great acclaim must tackle the impossible question: why? What makes "Back to the Manger" burn with a fiery fervor, captivate with visceral intensity, and do other big words with other big words?

Clearly, it's all due to the performance of the break-out star of the year. "Back to the Manger" is a tale of love,loss, redemption, and a time machine -- but without the pivotal portrayal of Mr. Olson The School Janitor, the entire production would have fallen flat. To find an acting talent to handle such a challenging and coveted role had to be an arduous process, but the actor chosen not only commanded the part, he brought the inner nuances of Mr. Olson to life in a way that left everyone in the audience that night a better person for it.

That actor's name? Okay, fine. It was me.

It was another one of those "hey babe" moments. My grade-school-teacher girlfriend knows just when to spring things like this on me. "Hey babe?" she said, back in, oh, June or something. "My school needs someone to play a tiny little role as a janitor in their Christmas program. Would you do it?"

It's no secret that I'll do anything for my girlfriend.

"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" I replied. "I'd rather be stung by bees. I'd rather watch a marathon of 'Full House.' I'd rather listen to the complete discography of Celine Dion in quadrophonic surround sound than act in a school play. Sorry, it's not for me."

Thus followed a campaign of puppy-dog eyes and back scratches the likes of which the world has never seen. Eventually, after WEEKS of goading, and I think after some totally unrelated squabble that required a colossal make-good on my part, I relented.

"Fine. I'll be in your dumb little play thing."

"Eeeeeeee!" came the wide-eyed response. "Really?" Sigh. Sucker, thy name is Shane.

Now, when I hear "tiny little role as a janitor," I think to myself, "I bet I'm in the background sweeping or something." But, lo, this role had LINES. MULTIPLE lines, in MULTIPLE scenes. And worst of all? At the very end of the play, I had, like, a triumphant epic half-page speech. It was the "Back to the Manger" equivalent of Linus' monologue at the crux of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." This little role had MEAT.

I got into drama in high school because drama geeks were the coolest of the nerd hierarchy. I had no natural acting talent, but I could remember lines and usually had no problem scoring supporting roles that allowed me to hang with the cool nerds and occasionally put the moves on arty theatre girls.

But in high school, I vowed to put an end to it. During a performance in the round with me in a wee side role, the scene ended with the actors freezing in place before the lights went down. I froze on cue, but I happened to freeze staring directly at a white-hot stage light. When the lights went out, I went temporarily blind, missed the exit tape on the floor, and proceeded to walk straight into the audience, plummeting into the first four rows and shoving my hand down the esophagus of the Galesburg High School version of The Little Red-Haired Girl I Had Longed To Date for Years. It was the epic fail of all epic fails, and the precise moment I decided that the stage was NOT for me.

Yet here I was, ready to tackle the role of Mr. Olson, the money-hungry janitor who builds a time machine that the kids steal to go back in time to teach me the true meaning of Christmas. Oh boy. Well, at least I'm good at memorizing lines...

Correction: At least I WAS good at memorizing lines back in the '80s. Twenty-some-odd years later? Not so much. Eventually, after a rough cram session, I was good to go -- but I've got to confess that, for my pivotal final line, I had the monologue crib-noted and taped inside the Bible I had to carry, which might just be sacrilege, I'm pretty sure. Worse yet is that I forgot to take it OUT of the Bible afterwards, so the next time you're at Bettendorf Christian Church and need to read Psalm 32, there's going to be one confused parishioner amongst you.

Before the curtain, I was taking places backstage with the 11-year-old star of the show who turned to me nervously and asked, "Are you scared? Coz I kinda am!"

"No no," I lied profusely while holding the Bible that I had just desecrated, which I think might be reeeeal bad but I'm hoping someone upstairs will let slide on the basis of good intentions. "I'm just excited and full of energy because we're gonna go out there and do our best and have fun and show everybody the real meaning of Christmas!"

It was the best acting I would do the whole night. Truth be told, I was more scared than every one of those kids combined and already sweating like a jogger. But the lights came up, the kids sang their hearts out, I didn't botch any of my lines, and in the end we were ALL upstaged by a little first-grader who belted out the cutest solo of "Away in a Manger" that's ever been.

All told, it was a success, and it was really cool to see the kids of Morning Star beaming with pride and accomplishment afterwards. I'm happy I got to be a part of it. Well, kinda happy.

"Great job," said the director to me afterwards. "And now that I know you can act, we're gonna be calling on you NEXT year..."

I would, but I've got this Celine Dion CD to listen to...

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