Cinderpost 1: of families and death

Thank you, God, or whatever you call yourself, if you are really there at all, and if you have a nice sense of humor (on which I am banking), for the family you gave me. Anne LaMott

The shadow play of our Cinderella

Cinderella is a story about families, mostly broken ones. In Charles Way’s adaptation which I have been rehearsing at The Arden Theater for the past two weeks, the families include the Prince’s (dead mother), Cinderella’s (dead mother) and the Stepmother’s (dead father). The journey of the play is of families grinding through a process of realignment, and then the revelatory discovery of a family newly made. All of these themes have been deeply resonant for me. The takeaway, it seems to me, is that we make the families we live in, and more often than not, the members of these families do not share blood. So “family”, which we are conditioned to think of as being the designation of an ancestry based on DNA, is more often a collection of people knitted together by something else besides genetic material. In this, Cinderella is a quintessential modern American story, and the struggles of the families described might as well be my own, blown up into comic proportions. I don’t mean the death of a parent, which I have not yet experienced. I mean the awkward but ultimately courageous knitting together of steps, halves and in-laws which so many of us call our family.

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The set model.

Now, our two weeks in the rehearsal hall are almost up, and next week we head into the theater, and on to David Gordon’s extraordinary set of clocks, timbers and swinging panels. Even for the sped-up pace of a week-deprived rehearsal, I sense we are in a good place. Whit, our director, began our process with an impassioned speech on the nature of multi-generational theater (what we used to call “family theater”, a term which replaced “children’s theater”). He spoke about the necessity of this kind of theater, not for the audience-building of the future (a raison d’etre for this kind of theater for many institutions), but rather for the transformational experience we offer to children and families. I couldn’t agree more. In a culture inundated with violent, materialistic entertainment piped into our children’s eyeballs from any number electronic devices, the value of a compelling, two hour long live experience becomes incalculable. And if that experience is infused with humor, depth of feeling and a sense of wonder, well, it should be required, in my humble opinion. It’s also some of the hardest theater to do well. Why? For the simple reason that you are trying to create a play which will entertain a 9 and a 39 year old, and those two people usually have very different tastes.

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Mary Tuomennen

Mary Tuomennen is our Cinderella, and she is a small, blonde volcano of emotion and creativity, made even more impressive by the fact that she has been performing in a show at Azuka Theater while rehearsing this one. Whit is a spontaneous and intuitive director, leaping up from his table to direct and demonstrate. His background in many forms of physical performance (he is an accomplished mime, for instance), leads to a kind of physically precise direction I haven’t had in a while. Some directors are script centric, sitting behind the table, rarely getting up, looking at the words as much as they look at the actors. These can be brilliant directors. Others are actor centric, hardly looking at the script at all, bounding around the room, demonstrating moves. Such is Whit. I love his energy, his insight and his self-depreciating humor. He has mused a good deal about being a dad during rehearsals, for obvious reasons, and that has something to do with the depth of connection I am feeling to the story.

I play the silliest character in the play: a King unable to get out of bed because of shame and paranoia bred of a broken heart. I auditioned using an accent inspired by Monty Python’s famous “Twit of the Year” skit, giving myself a ridiculous overbite to boot. After experimenting with an accent-less King, Whit asked me to return to the twit, and since then it has been a process of finding the right balance between utter twittiness, and a characterization which supports the surprising turns of pathos the King has. Best of all, I spend 75% of my stage time in a bed, rolled around the stage by my faithful minions. If you are ever cast in a play where you get to be in bed a lot, just take the job.

Then, at the beginning of this our second week, this happened:

Reuben Mitchell in rehearsal

Reuben Mitchell was an actor that had taken our theater community by storm in a little over two years. I had seen him in Theater Exile’s production of A Behanding in Spokane and he made me laugh until my face ached. He was well known through his work with 1812 Productions, and their annual show This is The Week That Was, an SNL-type variety show using the events of the week in our nation, to create a continually changing show. Reuben did a spot-on Obama imitation. Last summer, I cast him as Malcolm X in a reading of a new play presented at White Pines, Rustin and The March. He was extraordinary in that role and shared with me the honor he felt it was to portray a man he regarded as heroic. He was to have played Malcolm again this coming Monday the 19th, but for the fact that he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident last Monday.

Jen Childs addressing the grief-stricken

Tuesday morning, we sat in the rehearsal room and cried. That is not an exaggeration. Whit and Matt Decker of the Arden showed grace in allowing for some time for us just to grieve. Then, we soldiered on, getting through a day of rehearsal punctuated by tears, and feeling, for me at least, quite out-of-body. That evening, many of us gathered in the offices of 1812 Productions in a spontaneous gathering for Reuben. We staggered in, tear stained and exhausted, and held each other. Then, we wobbled off to one corner or the other of the room and stared at each other with mute vulnerability. Each new arrival was a chance to do something, to hold someone, to give shape and substance to our grief. I stayed for about an hour, long enough to hear James Ijames’ breathtaking and spontaneous eulogy delivered from atop a folding chair and accompanied by the sobs of friends. The room was packed with several “layers” of our theater community, from young people I barely know, to old timers like me, Whit, Jen Childs of 1812 and Joe Canuso of Theater Exile. It could have been a maudlin show of self-indulgent, over-dramatics. It could have been an awkward collision of fake smiles and strained relations. God knows the theater breeds enough of all of that. But it wasn’t. It was a room full of devastated friends who had lost a beloved, a beloved reaching the height of his powers, possessed of astonishing creative potential, and the near-miraculous ability to make anyone, anyone, smile.

Today was Reuben’s memorial service at a church in Germantown. I sat in worship in the viewing room, remembering another open casket a year and a half ago, for another Philadelphia rising star, also recently in a White Pines reading, also cut down in a vehicle, and loved and grieved with every bit as much fervor. Twice in two years, two dazzling young actors suddenly dead. And as did Melissa, Reuben has given us such an awesome gift: a great mirror, in which we see each other and ourselves, brave, wounded and so in love. And as with Melissa, I did not approach the body in the casket as others did, having no sense of its specialness; or rather, the sense that it was only special in that it was the now-empty vessel which had once carried within it the sweet, beautiful spirt named Reuben. Across the social media bandwidth this week, it has been proclaimed: we are shattered by this loss, we love our adopted brother Reuben, and we are an astonishing community of artists.

I began crying today when Reuben’s brother stood up to speak to us: a handsome United States Marine in full dress blues. He said, Reuben is my brother and I love him so much, and – as he gazed out over the pews full of multicultural faces, our faces, he said – and he is your brother too.

Marla and baby Camrose at the 1812 gathering

In our house, we like to say to our kids, we’re so glad you chose us. It’s a cute way of referencing a deeper mystery we believe in: that Griffen and Ella may have something of the eternal about them, and for this go round, they chose me and Susan to grow up with. Reuben and I chose Philadelphia, and, though I never talked to him about it, I think we chose it for the same reason. We each sensed the loving community here among the theater artists, which are a group historically more prone to itinerant lifestyles and factioning. And community is simply a larger and looser family. Sure feels like family, after the week I have spent in rehearsal with my beautiful colleagues, and after the fierce love I have felt directly at me from others in this community, a love which says, “dammit, you stay safe. We need you. We need all of us.”

And at the end of Cinderella, two young people choose each other, the way we have chosen each other here in Philly, over the other, sexier cities which shall remain nameless. And in making that free choice, they set the foundation for the beginning of something real and enduring. Not permanent, I mean who knows? But it is in the act of choosing that families are made. You – with all of your imperfections, flab and bad breath. Yeah you. I choose you. Because I see you, I really see you. And you are so, so precious.