Thus, I do what we all do: I ‘Cliffs Notes-it—” that is, I give you the gist. Ya know: I skip over this weird four-month chapter of Twilight-Zone-Level weirdness that no one could possibly understand unless they were to be told the entire story, or perhaps, they were, by some miracle, there.
So whenever I tell what is the “Cliffs Notes story of my life” it goes like this:
My Dad died.
I moved to Scotland.
That is… highly abbreviated. Because, of course, in between those events, I spent the entire winter and spring of my psychotic year-of-grief in a little coastal tundra-town known Alpena, Michigan.
It isn’t a very clean form of life-story-telling. It is much simpler to say “Well, my Dad died and I moved to Scotland” But it didn’t really work that way. My Dad did die. And I did move to Scotland— but meanwhile back in Grief-ville, I had to go back to the University of Minnesota and clean out my dorm, and drop of out of college to grieve-but-not-grieve.
None of it was tidy.
So, here we go. Let me set the scene:
As one is want to do in a time of crisis, 18-year-old grieving Al made a series of incredibly impulsive decisions shortly after the new year. In an attempt to “get on with things” I decided to:
1. Get a job. Perhaps at the mall. Perhaps at the diner I’d worked at all through high school.
2. Maybe try out for some community theatre! Heck, I was pretty good and the Village Players were doing Our Town!
This lead me to trawl the (still-baby-fresh) WORLD WIDE INTERWEB for options. I scrolled around for theatre gigs in my area to maybe “do some plays” while I worked at previously mentioned diner, got my freaking life together and I duuno like maaaaaybe re-auditioned for schools… buuuut also maybe curled up and died— Jury was out on that.
Then one day? BOOM: a very very weird thing happened.
I clicked on a link on Playbill.com:
A semi-professional theatre was looking for a young woman aged 18-24 who could sing to play in their winter season— The Mousetrap, The Fantasticks and The Pirates of Penzance.
You’d get $125 to build the sets, make the costumes, do all the marketing yourself, and be in the shows, and oh, you got to live above the theatre for free and share a single landline phone in a hallway with everyone else who was CLEARLY running away from their lives…Helloooo? Was the computer talking directly to me?
I called the theatre and sold myself harder than an info-mercial, and 20 minutes later I had the gig.
The only catch? This theatre was five hours north of Detroit in a tiny little town on the coast of Lake Huron called Alpena, Michigan.
Alpena: mean January temperature 12º.
Alpena: suuuuper Catholic.
Alpena: where you were awakened every morning by the train that ran directly next to said theatre at 5am with a coal delivery from Cadillac.
Alpena: where the two main restaurants were Bob’s Big Boy and… the other Bob’s Big Boy.
Alpena: With the weirdest, most provincial, Twin-Peaksy, and KINDEST gosh darn people you’ve ever met in your life.
Oh Alpena.... BRING. IT.
I packed the Jeep and drove there in the middle of the night with my also-grieving-mom who helped me move in and, miraculously, sort of…let me do this very, very weird thing.
And thus, once, long ago, in a mystical land known as Alpena, Michigan, several very magical things occurred that I shall never forget as long as I live.
- There some seriously eccentric adventures all in a very sketchy white van called “The Deer Slayer”
- I went to some seriously peculiar social events (a few of which included babies in bars)
- I learned all about running a theatre.
- and I did three plays— two of which were pretty good.
- Crucially, I met some quirky, damaged, weird and totally wonderful people all just as lost as I— and we held one another, lifted each other up in a very dark time.
I don’t know that I’d consider many of these people close friends to this day, but I do know that whenever I spontaneously run into them, or see them on social media, or come across a photograph or memory of that era— my heart swells with gratitude the way I assume an aggregate of shipwreck survivors must feel. Because like it or not we went THROUGH SOMETHING together—and those feelings and memories are ever-present. And I am grateful to those people who held me when I was a child on the verge of womanhood, at my very lowest.
There were a lot of stories.
But this story?
This one was the most important of them all...
* * *
I had a philosophy teacher in High School who once advised never to make life-changing decisions in February— and he certainly had a point. This? This was one of those Februarys. It was deepest February in Alpena Michigan—12 degrees Fahrenheit and life was cold in every sense.
The theatre had recently completed its not-so-stellar run of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and we were all in a deep funk as we began one of the most beautiful musicals of all time— The Fantasticks.
The thing was? It was February. In ALPENA. A blue-collar town of roughly 10,000 people.
9.23 square miles.
One high school.
Like maaaaaybe 5 restaurants.
And a set of railroad tracks.
Oh! And the World's Largest Cement Plant wouldn’t ya know?
Who on earth was going to schlep through all that snow to GO TO THE THEATRE?
But here’s the thing: in the middle of deepest February our motley little crew of broken people was bang in the middle of the doing The Fantasticks, and you know what? The Fantasticks was… good.
Really good, actually.
It wasn’t ideally cast, or sung, or particularly gorgeous to look at, but man: every single person in that cast knew what it meant to lose something, to break apart and put yourself back together. Every single person on stage knew what the heck was UP with that beautiful little play, and we were giving it to you with every scrap, every single fiber of our fragmented beings.
Kent flew in to play the young lover Matt so we were re-living our Interlochen magical fantasies, our professional cast of lost-but-talented-actors-living-above-the-theater were filling the roles beautifully, and we had a duet of local men playing the Dads so beautifully it evoked extreme emotions in everyone. Something about this work felt important, and universal and like it deserved to be shared.
Basically? This production was one helluva little wonder, and we managed to play… to NO ONE. And when I say “no one,” I mean it: there were days when thirty-six people were in the audience. There were days when there were SEVEN people in the audience—and I would know: I ran the freakin’ box office.
So tra la la: there we all were— bleeding away, baring the beautiful nakedness of splintered souls to NO ONE, in the asshole of winter, in the middle of freakin' nowhere.
It was bleak….
How could it not be?
No one was out there—if a tree falls in the forest does it make a noise?
If seven people see your beautiful play does it even matter?
What and WHO on earth are we even doing this for?
And then one day… a miracle happened.
We had just completed a midweek matinee where we had played to our smallest house thus far— a house of six. Six people. I changed out of my costume. I locked up the office, and, as one had to do between shows, I walked through the lobby in order to exit the building and re-enter immediately next door to the resident entrance of our apartments above the theatre. I moved swiftly—after all, I had soup to make and tears to shed about the state of my life.
And there he was: a man, probably in his mid-fifties, dressed in thick winter trousers, heavy-duty boots, a buffalo plaid winter coat, and a John Deer hat. This man was a living stereotype of typical Northern Michigan GUY—what on earth was he doing sitting by the entrance of a theatre? And why did he look so pensive? Was he lost? Was he ill? I approached him very slowly and asked:
“Sir? Hello there, can I help you?”
He made no reply.
“…Is everything okay?”
The man shifted on the bench beside the door, eyes locked firmly to the ground, and it was only then that I could see he had clearly been crying.
“Oh, yeah” he said in a voice that evoked one scoffing off feeling “I uh— I just had the afternoon off and I saw that this play was happening and I thought, heck, why not? So I came in and uh… yeah. I guess I didn’t expect it to uhh— ya know, hit me so hard…” His voice, laced thickly with his Michigan accent was breaking, “I— I thought it was really good. It uh— it made me—yeah. I’m fine I just … I… I really need to call my daughter…”
My insides lurched. It was as if the Universe was shining a spotlight on this man, in this lobby, at this particular moment in my little life.
...Who are we doing this for...?
We do it for THAT guy.
Because reader? THAT GUY IS ALWAYS OUT THERE.
Every show, in every audience, in every part of the world.
Even Alpena, Michigan.
In an audience filled with six people.
Because that day?
That day where six people were in attendance…? THAT GUY WAS THERE.
And when I tell you I think of That Guy every single day, I mean it.
So thank you, dearest and most beloved man I will never know or see again— you were a beacon of light in the darkest of days, and shine brightly in my memory, and continue to ignite every corner of my sometimes doubting heart.
It was all worth it.
It continues to be worth it.
Because then, now, and evermore: I do it for That Guy.