Kodiak High School’s auditorium was my wonderland as a child. I remember the thrill of seeing teachers, eye doctors, bankers, fishermen and students transformed into dancing cowboys, pirates, woeful prisoners or revolutionaries. The stage felt like my stage. Our elementary school did Christmas programs and spring concerts from its height, memorial services of friends were held there, and I walked across it to graduate from high school. It holds uncountable community memories and every year creates more.
I was reminded of the auditorium today as I planned for the staging of a play in Guaymango, El Salvador. My work as a volunteer mostly entails teaching theater with a social justice spin — promoting a stop to violence against women, more sustainable agricultural practices, community savings groups and more. I have four groups of young people in spread-out rural villages that I visit once a week. Three of them are busily creating plays to present at the opening of a community radio station in April.
The first play is about a rich girl’s kidnapping. The group members are all huge soap opera fans, and at the first chance they had to write an original drama, they smattered the script with murders, greed and elegance. At the end, a half-hearted moral is given to the audience: “Well, looks like money isn’t that useful after all. It didn’t save Wanda from getting kidnapped and it got a lot of people killed.” Elias, when he delivers the line, practically yells it, so sincere is he.
But as he continues, “Money is for food, anything else isn’t really important,” I wonder if he really believes the lesson. I remain unconvinced, especially when I think about what money could do for our pathetic little theater production.
We rehearse in an abandoned construction site, getting filthy every time someone falls down in a death scene. Unlike the smooth lights of the Kodiak auditorium, our lighting depends on the position of the sun. Sometimes, if the buses run late, our rehearsals run into dusk and then night, and we stop when we can longer see who is shooting who.
The group, mostly teenagers or twenty-somethings, all have enough to eat, but sometimes they rehearse in falling-apart sandals, the serenade of chickens their only applause. Our guns are sticks we’ve found and will paint black. Our costumes will be creative, not in their appearance as much as in the ingenuity to find something that vaguely resembles what the character should be wearing. We don’t have a stage; tomorrow I’ll ask if we can find some cardboard to make some kind doorway for the final presentation.
In short, we are hard up.
This is the time in the story when the conjunction “but” should appear, as in, “We are struggling, but there is so much joy in what we are doing.” Or, “Poverty and theater create work like I never saw in my better-funded college program.”
Both those things are true, but the story of real life, especially poor, rural Salvadoran life, is never as simple as we might want it to be.
To me, theater is magic. It is transformative in the way that fiction is; it has the power to carry us through stories wholly unlike our own that somehow teach us the deepest truths of what it means to be human.
So how much glitter does the fairy dust need to make the audience fly? Is there power in a gun that’s a painted stick? Can a child ride on the back of Peter Pan if his cape is patched and his shoes are falling apart? Can we furnish wonderland with our imaginations when the stage is bare and we have never seen a Cheshire cat?
I try to remember back to those plays in Kodiak that captured me and stayed with me for so long. I imagine “Crazy For You” without its set, “Our Town” without the lights, “The King and I” without the costumes. And still, there is wonder. The soul of the story beats strong.
If I could, I’d take all of my teenagers to see a beautiful, no-holds-barred show. They would see something different from the hard lives they live every day and will live every day until they die.
But maybe they would see. too, after all these months of meeting, that the stories they’re telling are just as grand as a Broadway production. We might not have all of the trappings; we might not have any. And yet, we still have the moment when the teller looks in the audience’s eye, holds out a hand, and says, “Come with me. I have something to show you.”
And in that moment, Elias is right. Money doesn’t matter and neither does production value. All that exists is the childlike gasp as we grasp that outstretched hand and follow it into a world unknown.