On a cold January night, we gathered in the dark basement of a North Toronto church. We'd come for a variety of reasons: some to reconnect with our past, some to escape from it, some on a whim or a dare and some because they had no good reason to say no.
We were lawyers, oncologists, acupuncturists, real-estate agents, moms and dads. We'd all come to perform, as this was a community theatre staging of Mamma Mia!
Our show was born out of the bubbled-over jealously of one former drama queen as she watched her seven-year-old perform in yet another musical. She had a strong conviction that we, as parents, should be able to be on stage, too. The calls went out and a ragtag group with pockets full of different reasons arrived.
I'd always thought I would return to the stage after performing in theatre throughout my youth, but 20 years on Bay Street, four kids, mortgages and life had got in the way. So when the desperate call for more male actors came in the midst of the market crises, I was in desperate need of a diversion and thought, "If not now, when?"
As we gathered for our first rehearsal, most of us perfect strangers, we were completely unaware of the magic that would unfold.
On that cold winter night, we began with a few improvisational exercises and checked each other out with furtive glances. I looked around trying to assess the room. Thin, pretty Caroline had the soft voice and look of terror that surely indicated she wouldn't be back next week. Tall, bald Dr. Paul had the stilted delivery that evidenced his regret over not being able to say no. I estimated we would lose five or six of our 25 as the awkwardness intensified during our solos and some of the first voices warbled with timid fragility.
But as the auditions wore on, my optimism soared as others sang with voices clearly trained and pure. This was a group with promise, and I felt that moment of innocent joy I remembered from my youth: the Andy Hardy, "Let's put on a show!" moment.
As we assembled every Wednesday evening, doubt started to be overtaken by laughter and camaraderie. To my surprise, everyone returned as curiosity trumped trepidation. Our amazing director cast us perfectly. I didn't realize it but I was Harry Bright.
We learned exits and entrances, stage left and right, spacing, acting and reacting. We struggled to memorize dance steps only to find that when singing was added, we were once again hopelessly lost. We were often plagued by self-doubt but as the weeks passed an extraordinary chemistry started to happen - in short, we became a cast. We didn't know a lot about each other outside those walls but what we shared within them was special.
As opening night approached, we at times felt excited and ready and at others amateurish and ill-prepared. A fear set in that we would live up to the expectations of our teenage children, who were only coming to say, "I told you so" after watching us fall flat on our faces. We had no choice but to make it work, though. Our director, who if she ever had a single moment of doubt refused to show us, pulled us through by her sheer will, talent and optimism.
The feeling on opening night for any actor is indescribable. The roar of the greasepaint reaches a crescendo. Our hard work and sweat was now about to be on display. Other than at a wedding, it would be hard to imagine a more partisan crowd: spouses, children, parents and friends all curious to see the result of all the hours we spent away from them.
We held hands in a circle at centre stage an hour before curtain. I'm not sure there is a way other than theatre to feel that close to a group of people whom you have only known for three months. We were ready.
And when the lights went on, we rose to the occasion as we secretly knew we would. There were dropped cues, flubbed lines and flat notes but, most of all, joy and brilliance. The real thrill of live theatre comes in the surprises - watching Caroline hit a note during Super Trouper in a voice that had been hidden from us (and herself) during the past 14 weeks; or the scene-stealing comedic genius of Dr. Paul, who had somehow, over the past few months, become an actor.
All of our efforts were rewarded by a standing ovation from a proud audience. Those smiling faces are truly why we did it: to not only test ourselves but to set an example for our children and pay a debt of gratitude to our parents. Theatre has a unique way of stripping away all that you have built up in your life and putting you out there with nothing to protect you but the strength of your own character.
As the Dancing Queen lyrics faded, the curtain went down and the last bows of the encore finished, we drifted back to the wings with a feeling of exhilaration, but also sadness. We live out most of our lives there - in the wings. Our moments in the spotlight are precious few and fleeting. Whether we care to admit it or not, we all need recognition for what we do. Ironically, it comes more freely from an audience than those closest to us. While the cast will inevitably see one another at soccer pitches, in supermarket lineups or the local coffee shop, we know it will never feel quite the same as opening night.
The real reason I performed may have been best summed up in the cheesy lyrics of ABBA themselves: "What would life be, Without a song or a dance what are we?"
So to all of you, thank you for the music - for giving it to me.
Kevin Sullivan lives in Toronto.
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