The theatre celebrates the opening of its new home, a building that was once a Catholic church just down the street from the American Legion. Dressed with a red carpet at its entrance and a ribbon for a ceremonial cutting, it beckons community members to gather, and they do. Farmers' wives, grandmothers, everyone from town walks down the center of the street like it's a parade day.
I am fond of saying how I grew up in the woods, how my closest neighbor was a mile away, how my propensity for poetry and retreating to my closet to think come from that isolation among trees, deer, and huckleberry bushes. That was the set of my childhood. What helped me most to grow up was my family's full-throttle involvement in a community theatre in Nuremberg, Pennsylvania, the town closest to our wooded home.
I was thirteen or fourteen when the local pastor and his wife, Bill and Judy Knott, proposed a community choral concert. My father, sister, and I joined. We sang Neil Diamond medleys and some show music, in the company of the town's postmaster and my middle school English teacher. Rehearsals and concerts were held in the American Legion Hall on Hazle Street. The show music lit the spark that set the idea for the first community theatre production smouldering, and the Nuremberg Community Players was born with the first production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. George Croll played the lead role. My sister, father, and I each played one of his brothers, two of our moustaches and beards drawn on with eyeliner. Mom worked backstage. George used coffee grounds to deepen his complexion, and my mother recalls the scent of coffee grounds as she worked. My father's textile company provided the upholstery fabric that made up most of the costumes for the show. George's technicolor dreamcoat was sewn by a local artist. Its rainbow spread as he opened the coat wide in a vibrant grin centered among our upholstery togas. Spotlighted, it was magnificent, a promise of all things good, a true rainbow.
So began the first of 32 years worth of community theatre productions, where a local school bus driver played the lead in Oklahoma, where teenaged girls danced alongside their elementary school gym teachers in chorus roles, and a nurse took her first stab at directing the straight play in the fall. It wasn't long before the theatre was doing two shows a year -- a musical in the spring, and a straight play each fall. If it was cold, an enormous heater rocketed blasts of forced hot air of from the back of the hall. When it was hot, the back doors and front doors remained open to create a breezeway that lifted curtains and pushed dust and glitter across the floor.
My mother and I scan the audience for faces we recognize as we enter the opening of the new theatre, programs in hand. George Croll hasn't changed much. Ann Bonacci hasn't either. She is still the same carburetor of energy that makes things like fully dressed stages and framed collages of photographs appear. Time didn't erase the memory of a posture of a woman I recalled being a regular audience member when I was in shows 30 years ago.
A teenage boy with a face almost still young enough to be cherubic stands in front of the new theatre's black curtain, guarding the secret contents of the stage before the big reveal. He's dressed smartly in a crisp white shirt and black pants. The audience files into the new seats (someone sewed cushions and stenciled the theatre's initials on each), and he gazes forward, a sentinel. He sighs audibly, then catches himself, and remembering the importance of his job, his lips purse and his posture straightens. The curtain draws back to oohs, ahhs, and applause from the assembled, and the emcee takes the stage at a podium draped in sparkling cloth. Aqua paper flowers rise in a spray upstage and complement the hanging black and aqua fabric at the wings. The hallmark of Ann's design sense.
The emcee asks us all to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and everyone rises. Right hands over hearts, we face the flag and recite. A college freshman, brought up in the theatre and minoring in theatre now, sings the Star Spangled Banner. The priest from the former church gives the invocation, then steps down, careful in his orthopedic shoes. His left foot lisps sideways.
Welcome home, where pretense does not exist. What a relief to be here. I've missed it. The celebration of the new theatre includes a tap dance by Miss Greater Hazleton, who has overcome a drastic curvature of the spine through surgeries, and a sing-along version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by the young woman playing the lead in the upcoming show, The Wizard of Oz. I think of George's technicolor dreamcoat in the spotlight, of the stories of the people of my home and all their possibilities, and how in living they write their own scripts as well or better than Tennessee Williams.
While driving to this event I was stunned by how the only things that had changed in the road I dream about was the addition of a stop sign at the hairpin turn and the cutting down of a tree or two. You can go home again.
Thirty years ago I was encouraged by the members of my community to step outside of myself, contribute, play pretend, take a risk. My shaking voice soloed in a chorus concert, and my quivering smile danced downstage at the footlights, and those explorations in public performance gave me the confidence to do more. Today, the message of the new theatre is the same: encourage the new generation.
The same boy who stood at the curtain offers me a box of Yoo-Hoo after the program, and several members of the theatre carry trays of cupcakes and donut holes. My mother and I take a tour of the dressing rooms. I snap photos of the framed copies of every show program for 32 years that ring the inside walls where the signs of the cross probably once hung. The words "I am the bread of life" and "I am the living water" shine through the stained glass and cast their rainbow messages across the floors and adjacent walls. Any theatre critic worth her weight in words will get the connection.
Both church and theatre ask you to believe, to take a leap of faith, to step outside of yourself and consider another story. Anything is possible if you just believe. Just close your eyes, click your heels three times, and say "There's no place like home."