The end of our production of Ragtime also signifies the end of my theater career at Duke. Coming to Duke my freshman year, I was not a theater person, let alone a musical theater person. But somehow, here I am, 10 shows later, talking about what I’ve learned from the whole process. Ragtime has been a show that truly challenged me as a performer. In the realm of music, I strived with my fellow company members to produce a sound that was not only tonally correct, but also mature and authentic. The challenge of playing multiple roles made me work to develop each character’s story in relation to my own personal experience.
Perhaps the most surprising change for me was the presence of an audience. Seeing people out there, paying attention (or sometimes, surprisingly, not) to our show made me realize what Jeff had been saying all along about our roles as storytellers. Before opening night, I understood what he was saying on a very shallow level – “Ok, I get it – we’re telling a story through a musical to the audience. Gotcha.” But with the audience sitting there, ready to receive what we were going to give them, I got it. This was about theater being more than just a nice performance that the audience enjoys; it was about provoking personal change through the power of theater. I felt this intense desire to share the history and passions of this narrative with the audience, and used this as fuel for my portrayals of each role.
And then, strike came. How fitting that my 10th and final strike would also be the most intensive. Seeing the set that became a part of our daily routine go down and be thrown into a dumpster was bittersweet for me, but it was also cathartic in a way. I thought back to the hours I spent on this production: trying to sew hems onto skirts (and failing miserably), helping with wood, and standing in for light cueing all were steps that made “our story” able to be told. It occurred to me during strike, as I watched the same professionals that designed, cued, and built every part of this production tear it down, that everyone involved in the production had been storytellers. Some of us told the story through acting, some of us through music, some of us through design, or backstage work, or whatever else, but we all told the story of Ragtime together.
Thanks David. Tht was a moving and meaningful entry.
David Oberst, I love you and I love this entry. I think there’s something very poetic about building something epic and beautiful only to take it apart piece by piece until there’s nothing left. It truly exemplifies the temporary nature of life itself, and how all wonderful, beautiful things must come to an end to give way to new creation. Whether or not you did this intentionally, the full-circle reflection of your time performing at Duke directly parallels the act of starting from nothing, building something elaborate, and then taking it apart to start anew. Though you started fresh as a performer when you arrived at Duke, you’ve built yourself into a priceless, integral member of the theater community here. Your friendship has touched all of us who know you, and your elegance as a performer improves with each show you are in. Just like Ragtime, the seniors’ Duke run is ending bit by bit yet, the wonderful creation of experience remains in the hearts of all of you and everyone touched by you. So, just as Duke has built you up into the inspiring performers and people you are today, influencing countless “audiences” with your positive light, so too must you be dismantled in preparation for the creation of new beauty, new experience, and new audiences. Our enormous production of Ragtime has now dissipated and been cleared away, yet we carry the powerful message and experience within our memories. Nothing is left now but a blank stage so, seniors, the stage is yours!
DOberst! My Totem! This post was so inspiring and, like Pheobe wrote, makes me think of the nature of the artistic process and how nothing is really ever permanent. I’m still getting used to that reality as I often wish we could savor the community we’ve built in Ragtime forever. I was also moved by early-onset nostalgia during strike when we were sorting costumes and I could, without looking at the name-tag, identify who wore each piece in detail. As in, it wasn’t just a “ruffled white blouse”, it was Katherine’s shirt! Even now when I’m handling clothes and putting them back in storage, I can’t believe the process is over and that the costumes will eventually waft down from being Matt’s vest to “black velvet vest”. I completely relate to what you wrote, yet part of me is a little jealous that you get to end your Duke performing career with Ragtime! This was an awesome show with such amazing energy and reviews that I can’t imagine topping this in my senior year! I know you have an amazing future in store, but I sincerely hope that you continue to perform no matter where you work because you are highly talented and full of energy. Plus, you never know, maybe some other lost girl will need a totem to help her remember where to stand during a beautiful opening number?
I think what your post captures so nicely is how shows really come in cycles – you start from nothing, and by the end, you also have nothing left. Except it’s not the same nothing. Because the set is gone, the cues forgotten or thrown away, but there’s something more that you know now that you didn’t before the show. And not just in terms of music or memorized lines, but you’ve learned something random that you didn’t expect to – like a new thing about yourself or what’s happening in the world, how to teach other people, or maybe even something as simple as a deeper meaning to words you didn’t understand before.
I feel like by the time I graduate, I’ll feel a lot like you do now too. If I had tried to picture college two years ago, there’s no way I would have thought I’d be involved or theater or directing. Yet now, shows define each semester for me. The beginning of a semester means auditions and getting close to LDOC means strike time. It makes college seem to fly by even more than usual, but I can’t imagine not framing my semester and my time at Duke by the opening and closing of the next show.
As a choreographer, I often think of opening night as a time when the blinders fall from my eyes and I see what has really been done. My reaction may be, “Oops, I should have fixed that” or “Dang! That’s actually effective,” but it is always revealing.
As a performer, I am often amazed at what will touch an audience member. We usually know the parts that are emotional powerhouses (Go out and tell our story), but because everyone has a unique set of experiences, something may trigger an intense response or realization that we would never have thought of. I love live performance. No amount of special movie effects can replace that meshing of human vibrations.