by BRIAN BOZANICH, MFA
Why We Tell the Story
In my third year running the theatre program at my current school, I was slated to direct my first musical. I decided to give myself plenty of time to prepare and announced a title a year before auditions, Once on This Island (OOTI) (Ahrens and Flaherty). I chose the show because it played to my strengths. It was a story about stories, about community, and a culturally based folk tale. I started preparing in summer 2003. Having never seen a production, I decided to mount the show in the round with an ensemble of sixteen serving as minions to the four central gods of the show.
Knowing my casting pool, I had expectations as to who might take on the lead role of Ti Moune, the peasant girl caught between the gods of Love and Death. In a surprise, a senior Vanessa landed the role. She was not whom I expected, but her audition captured the hope and vulnerability needed for the role. As a director, sometimes you get all the right people, at the right time, with the right material, and it is art. The rehearsal process was filled with all the work, joy, fear, and stress needed to temper the work. Vanessa grew in the role and the whole cast knew we had the potential for transcendence. On opening night on the floor of a converted gym in Southern California with sixteen lights the story of Ti Mourne resonated with every audience member. Vanessa embodied the role. I watched audiences lean in toward the stage and saw football players cry. A teacher offered this one word review. Catharsis.
The entire team shared in the credit. Music, dance, design, acting had unified to create something more. Vanessa graduated a few months later. In the next few years, I saw her a few times and thanked her for helping me, a novice director, do something beyond what I thought was possible. The 2004 cast of OOTI stayed in touch and connected through the years and we all talked of that production as a significant life event.
One Thursday, passing the Activities Director’s office, I heard a snippet of a conversation, “car accident, class of 2004, I think.” Over the next hour I would learn that Vanessa had been killed by a drunk driver the night before and left behind a young daughter. I was devastated. We had not talked in years, but the shared experience made the sense of loss overwhelming. I announced the death to the school and spent time with her friends and family in mourning. At the funeral, over half the cast attended, we all shared stories. Vanessa’s mother told me that Vanessa’ daughter often watched the recording of her mother in OOTI.
I have never known what to say in times of grief. As someone who is typically good with words, I am rendered mute when I try to console. After a few months thinking, what can I do to help the community heal? I thought of OOTI, its themes of love, death and redemption. I decided to enlist my current students’ talent for a project. We would mount a revival of the OOTI and set aside one night as a benefit for Vanessa’s daughter. It was something I could do. In addition to the show we would invite the 2004 cast and crew to the stage to sing the closing number “Why We Tell the Story” after bows. My student jumped at the chance to help. We began planning.
With my cast set, we began rehearsals. Nicole was cast as Ti Moune and she felt the necessary responsibility of the role. Over the course of rehearsals, the original visited the theatre. Current students met their 2004 counterparts. They shared stories and helped the cast find the sense of community needed to make this project work. Last March, on a Friday evening, we raised over $4000 for Vanessa’s daughter. The cast was amazing, the performance incredible. The tears started with the first song and ended long after bows. The sixty students from eight different graduating classes sang, “And she stands against the lightning and the thunder, And she shelters and protects us from above, And she fills us with the power and the wonder Of her love.” We offered up the song in the memory of our absent friend Vanessa.
May 7, 2013
I have been trying to write this post for weeks. To organize the experience and help give context to the posts about my teaching philosophy. Monday, I received a call from Vanessa’s sister saying she had something to drop off for me. We missed connecting, but when I went to pick up what she left, this was the gift.
A decade later, we are still community. Thank you, Ness. This is why we tell the story.
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