Thursday, April 22, 2010

Opening Night...

Tonight is opening night. I’m anxious and distracted and excited. I must confess, also, to caring a bit too much about how the audiences will perceive me. But I pray that these impulses will move aside for something more important.

Let me explain. For the last couple of months I’ve been rehearsing most evenings for a production of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” a play based on Robert Fulghum’s bestselling books.

The play is really an evening of theatrical storytelling, combined with several musical numbers. Fulghum’s essays generally aim to extract practical wisdom—that is, how-should-I-live-my-life sort of wisdom—from familiar events. With humor and insight, Fulghum tries to find deeper meanings in ordinary events—or, sometimes, to use extraordinary events to draw out life lessons that can apply to all of us. In the play the actors slip freely between role-playing and narration (occasionally bursting into song) in order to bring these stories and their lessons to life. The actor’s words closely follow Fulghum’s original language, with some adjustments made for the theatrical format.

If the stories selected for the play share a unifying theme, that theme is captured in the final scene of the play, in which the entire cast shares the answer that philosopher and politician Alexander Papaderos gave when Fughum asked him, “What is the meaning of life?”

When asked this question, Papaderos responds by taking out a small mirror—one that he’s had since childhood. He explains that he found it at the scene of motorcycle wreck, the largest piece of a broken mirror which he made round by scratching against a stone. As he grew up he kept the mirror, and it became a game for him to try to reflect light into dark places—a game that became, as he matured, a metaphor for how he could live his life.

As recounted by Fulghum (and recited in the play), Papaderos concludes his narrative in the following way: “I came to understand that I am not the Light, nor am I the source of Light. But Light—truth, understanding, knowledge—is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world—into the dark places in the hearts of men—and change some things in some people. Perhaps, others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

I find this beautiful. I also find it deeply religious. This is not to say that secularists and atheists cannot hear these words, find them insightful, and live in a way that “reflects the light.” And I am deeply conscious of how some souls become darkened by doctrines and attitutes taught to them in churches--and who act in the name of faith in ways that seem to serve no purpose other than to block the light, to keep it from shining into the darkness.

But when I think of religion, what I think of first is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world, that acknowledges a transcendent mystery far greater than us, an ultimate reality which we open ourselves up to, and which can work through us to bring light into the darkness. What else but this lies at the heart of St. Francis’ exquisite prayer?

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Here, in the form of a prayer, is the very same message that Papaderos shared with Robert Fulghum, when the latter had the audacity to ask him about the meaning of life.

And it is the very same message that I and my fellow cast members will have the privilege to share with audiences over the next two weeks. Papaderos reflected the light that came into his life, sending it onward in profound ways; Fulghum captured a piece of it and sent it onwards. Now, in the words of a play, it has come to illuminate my little corner of the world.

And my prayer is that I will continue that process—that when I sing “Reflect the Light” each night, or play a Kindergartner given his wish of playing “a dancing, barking pig” in the story of Cinderella, it will be something more than a narcissistic exercise or an entertaining diversion. That somehow, even in a little community theatre, in some small way, we can help bring light to the dark places.

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