Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gifts in a Black Box

You know, December really was a busy month.


(I’ll pause for giggles, raised eyebrows or eye-rolling at my sweeping understatement.)


Like most families, we fling ourselves into the holiday season at Thanksgiving and begin a four-week run of various celebrations, including two children’s birthdays in the first week of December. (Add two pre-Christmas family celebrations and a four-day road trip to Ohio and that explains why my holiday cards might arrive by Feb. 1).


Back in September, I decided to add some mileage to this holiday marathon by joining the cast of “Holiday Road,” a musical theatre workshop produced by Ballet Austin’s community school. For 12 weeks, nearly 60 dancers, singers and actors rehearsed for two hours a week, culminating in two performances that were smack in the middle of the holiday season: Dec. 12 and 13.


“Holiday Road,” written by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique, tells the story of a family road trip from Austin, Texas, to Christmas, Michigan, via Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Indiana (don’t look at a map), and Minnesota. The family loses its way both emotionally and geographically. But the holiday spirit brings them together in the end, when they rescue a bus full of stranded schoolchildren during a fierce Minnesota blizzard.


From Dec. 4 to Dec. 13, I spent part of every day in class, rehearsal or performance. I’m no triple threat, but this show required me to sing, dance and act. I played Mrs. Peabody, a loving but stressed out assistant principal who imagines herself the Holiday Cheer Leader, in charge of everyone’s seasonal spirits. I’m also a chorus gal, so I donned reindeer antlers and pranced behind a powerful young singer playing Taylor Swift singing "Reindeer Boogie” in a Branson, Mo. holiday TV special. I strapped jingle bells on my wrists for a rock’n’roll revue in Santa Claus, Ind., and learned some hula to sing “Mele Kalikimaka” at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. In the show’s climax, I helped lead a school bus full of freezing children as we danced and shook to stay warm in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”


After “Holiday Road” finished its two-day run, I returned to home life and work, and I found myself wondering about my time-consuming hobby. I spent 24 hours in rehearsal and in performance, I could have been addressing Christmas cards. Baking six kinds of Christmas cookies. Or sipping cocktails at holiday parties. But instead, I was cursing fishnet tights, counting triple lindys or contemplating the inflection of my opening line: “Boys, stop RUNNING!” Out of the theatre -- out of the black box -- I kept blinking, figuratively, at the light shining on my “normal” life, and asking “What was I doing in there, in that box?”


Well, I was having a hell of a lot of fun. That’s a pretty good reason. But I found more.


Being part of a cast and a giving a live performance invigorates values that are important to me, such as commitment, personal responsibility, trust, creativity, friendship and leadership. I called on every one of those during that 12-week workshop, especially in the last week. The black box turned a spotlight on those values and the light did not discriminate: it illuminated all parts of my life and found some hiding places. I welcomed their familiarity.


And then there was a newcomer.


It happened when, after a particularly stressful rehearsal marked by confusion, timidity and indecision, our director declared: “I didn’t have a career in New York because I was talented. I had a career because I was BRAVE.”


In that second, I Got It.


At the heart of bravery is judgment. No matter the venue – theatre, classroom, courtroom or conference room – being brave means making decisions about who you are, why you are there and what you are doing. Bravery is essential to creativity and arguably more important than confidence. On stage, it might make the difference between being believable and memorable -- or ignorable. To be charged with bravery is to be given permission to make decisions -- even wrong ones. When I Got It, I was thinking about how to be brave on stage and how it would help me give a better performance.


I realized the following week, that it was also a lovely Christmas present.


As someone who struggles to keep fear and perfectionism in their place, I seized this gift with my mind, body and heart, and I am keeping it there.


Because it doesn’t fit in my baggage, and it doesn’t need to stay in a black box.



2010-Laura Bond Williams. All rights reserved.