Playing Among the Stars

A friend of mine told me, “The most important lessons in your life take place when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.” I wasn’t thinking about that on the night I went to “Play Among the Stars.” I was just wondering if there was a way I could avoid driving all the way to Salem on a cold night with slushy roads turning to ice. I had agreed to evaluate a youth theatre group for the upcoming New Hampshire Theatre Awards (Feb. 6 at the Palace Theatre). I typically enjoy seeing kids on stage — my own kids are performers — but this was no typical children’s theatre. Play Among the Stars is a theatre group for developmentally disabled young people and adults. They were staging their Christmas production at the Salem High School. When I agreed to be the evaluator for the group it seemed like an interesting experience to take in, but now it seemed like a chore. I was prepared to come away feeling sympathetic, but not artistically impressed. When I arrived, my fears seemed confirmed. I was given a quick backstage tour, where dozens of actors sat or stood around in costumes of toy soldiers, rag dolls, and gingerbread men. It was a toyland theme, but the actors seemed nervous and cheerless, although several waved at me curiously and one hugged me. Within their costumes the actors wore the masks of their disabilities: Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and such. I was handed a program and sat in the audience, noting with dismay that the play had an intermission. This meant that I’d be sitting for at least a couple of hours. I relaxed a bit to look around as parents, siblings and peers arrived. I was struck by how they seemed like any audience of family members, ready to applaud for their kids on stage. What had I expected? The curtains opened and the entire cast was there, shuffling and singing along to a recorded voice and music track. The song ended and the cast was led offstage leaving only a big toy box. I was ready to slip out and interview the director later, but suddenly the crowd murmured. On stage, a face peered out of the box. One of the “toys” had been left behind, a rag doll. She walked out to center stage and sang a little song about being forgotten. Another rag doll came back and took her hand, leading her off stage. The magic of theatre began. The cast went on to bravely perform a variety of songs and skits before a cheering audience. They performed with a sense of humor and passion that was totally unselfconscious. It was theatre in its pure form, expression unfettered by the conceits of talent and ambition, beauty that was uncontaminated by vanity. The performers were not technically excellent, but they exhibited the camaraderie that comes from the best ensembles, and “authenticity,” the substance that actors toil to possess, poured naturally from them as voices cracked, lines were dropped (or invented) and hearts in the audience melted. What first appeared as a mass of nameless people became a cast of individual personalities I recognized and cared about. “This is what theatre is all about,” I realized. It was a lesson that I’d never have asked for, but one I’m happy to share. For you to receive it, you’ll need to take a drive to Salem on a cold night and play among the stars. NH
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