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A goodbye

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I feel some need to put this down somewhere, because I think it’ll calm thoughts in my head. I am Ben Coppola. I am a stage manager and I’m proud to be a stage manager. I took a jump into acting this semester for the first time since I was in high school and was cast in a Sarah Kane play, Cleansed, directed by Jordan Walsh here at Pittrep. As someone who lives in the tech/production side of things, taking a jump into the art of theatre was both refreshing and terrifying; and while I could sit here and talk about that process, I need to talk about events that occurred yesterday.

Early yesterday morning, I walked into work at the scene shop where I was informed to go down to the Heymann to strike a set. There, my boss gave me a heads up warning that the student labs (Cleansed & Wasp) were in danger of being cancelled but that he had suggested moving the show into the Heymann theatre for only two performances as opposed to six. This meant that the set currently in the Heymann had to be struck by 5pm that day. Now I can only assume that this was unhappy news to my fellow actors but I only saw it as a solution to a problem. With only about five or six people, it was going to be a hassle but I wasn’t worried. We could get it done if we worked hard enough and if the Heymann cleared we could move the show if we worked quickly. Perhaps it’s because I’ve SMed over twice as many shows as I’ve acted in but worries and concerns and problems like this don’t really seem to faze me anymore. Hell, they happen so often in productions, it’s somewhat scarier when they don’t occur.

As the strike continued and the rumor of the show being in danger spread, other cast members along with crew and all sorts of people started showing up to speed strike along. Even an alumnus, who was just visiting, helped out in an attempt to save the show. It’s times like this that I feel the phrase “theatre is collaboration” shines through strongest. I think people came because they were nervous at the idea that the show would be cancelled. “Helping out will also help them feel better”, I guessed. I quietly kept on working with a small smile on my face, knowing all was well because work was continuing. 5 o’clock came around. The set was completely struck and I left work hopeful that we could re-stage the show for the Heymann.

It wasn’t until later that night that it hit me.  Jordan, Zoe, the SM, and Susie, the PM, sat the Cleansed cast down in a circle and informed us, quietly and with a calm and controlled voice, that our show was cancelled. The second those words landed, small gasps followed around us. I was quiet but I felt a small amount of pressure in the back of my throat, like I was holding back a burp of some kind. I turned to see actors next to me crying, holding their heads or each other. I realized how sad everyone must have felt at the news, and rightfully so. I on the other hand couldn’t feel sad.

I remember in my senior year of high school, my principal sat the school down to inform us that my physics teacher, Mr. Gormley, had died suddenly that morning. He had quickly become one of my favorite and most influential teachers. Hell, if it wasn’t for him, I’d have most likely been expelled from high school (I was a delinquent way back when). All my friends were crying and hugging each other, seniors usually got really close to Mr. Gormley, but all I could do was stare blankly ahead, somehow unfazed.

Now, while being told your show is cancelled and being told your mentor is dead are two starkly different sets of news, my reception was oddly similar. I should be sad, but I’m not.

I’m not sad.

I’m not happy.

I’m not angry.

I don’t feel anything.

After some tears and heartfelt remarks said in both strong and emotionally wavering voices, we all got up and hugged each other. For someone who loves hugs as much as I do, surprisingly I couldn’t find the drive for it. I stood in the background and let people who needed a hug find me, and gladly accepted their embrace. Anyone who ever does theatre knows the near-family bonds that can often be formed; I’m closer to some of these people than I ever thought I would be. And I said it before but “theatre is collaboration” and in order to collaborate you need to trust one another, and in order to trust one another you have to open yourself to them fully.

Luckily we were allowed to photo call, and watch the elements together for the extreme bits of our show that we had spent 2 months working on. They’re now preserved in still photos and I’m eager to see them. But what’s slightly more important is that the process of taking photos allowed us to say goodbye. The crummy old studio theatre, for three more hours, was a university/asylum. Nina was Grace for a little longer, Matt was Carl, Connor was Rod, Kyle Graham, Kellen Tinker, Moira the Woman, Chelsea, Melissa, Mike, Shane, Ayse, Jackie they were all voices. For three more hours, I was still Robin, an illiterate 19 year old social pariah who cried, ate chocolates, wore a dress and put a noose around his neck. For three more hours, Cleansed was a thing. I remember looking at Dave, the light designer, (who I have had the pleasure of working with on multiple projects) and saying “It’s always the best ones that get away”. He nodded and shrugged.

And then it hit me and I knew why I wasn’t sad. Cleansed didn’t get away.

Yes, the performances are gone.

But I am not gone.

My fellow actors, they’re not gone.

Jordan isn’t gone.

Zoe isn’t gone.

Susie isn’t gone.

Dave isn’t gone.

The other designers, Andrew, Alexa, Sarah, Amanda, they’re not gone.

Sarah Kane’s text isn’t gone.

The work we did isn’t gone.

What we learned isn’t gone.

What we experienced isn’t gone.

And most importantly,

Theatre is not gone.

This show will sadly see no performances, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. We’re going to experience other challenges in life. We’re going to be pushed into corners and forced to take leaps of faith. This process proved that we could do all of that and come out shining. And if eating a box of chocolates and working out that 7*52*30=10920 while screaming my lungs out and crying has taught me something, it’s that if you can do something crazy once, then dammit you can do it again.

I’d like to think that I embraced acting during this production. I’d also like to think that I wasn’t emotionally affected by the bad news because that part of my brain that is an eternal stage manager held me together. I’ve worked with people here at Pitt, and then randomly run into them while working out in the real world. So I have full confidence that we will meet again, and work on another show, possibly in different positions. The fact that we were together in the rehearsal hall will only strengthen us in the work we do further.

Having worked on well over twenty shows/events/performances/what have you, I’ve accepted that most productions are fleeting. They exist for a small amount of time and then they are gone. We mourn the loss and relive our fond memories of the process. And then we get back up, practice our audition monologues, prepare our resumes and portfolios and seek out the next production. Performances or not, Cleansed existed. Now it is gone. But the experience, the process wasn’t lost. So let’s relive what we loved about the production, and begin seeking out our next job.

And to start off, here’s a short list of my favorite moments:

-Pre-rehearsal, when we jokingly pitched the Cleansed-on-ice concept to Jordan.

-Running lines in Scene 7 with Nina, Kyle and some third person and hearing all the different deliveries of the line “Fuck is that.”

-Watching Lisa-Jackson-Schebetta sob her eyes out, and then promptly stand back up and say ”So it’s kinda like that”

-The Cleansed Celebrity Movie Poster. (A work of genius IMO)

-Warm ups/Rave Dance Parties

-Losing my breath when Matt ran the dance sequence and when his feet were amputated.

-Nina’s constant supportive hugs after every scene

And my favorite moment as Robin:

-Running the show for the Wasp cast and actually feeling tears fall down my face as I put the noose around my neck.

With this out of the way, I have one final statement for Cleansed:

Goodbye, Robin.

Hopefully we’ll meet again. In the meantime, I have some operas on the horizon that need SMing.

[Reposted from the Cleansed production blog.]