Fleeting Moments on a Black Box Stage
“We’re totally gonna hang out after this.” It’s a phrase you hear a lot at the end of a college theatre production, at least in my experience. If you’ve ever been involved in a college theatre production, onstage or backstage, you know it involves a lot of work over a short period of time with a very small group of people. For those few weeks, you do everything together: act, eat, study, party, change clothes, occasionally make out. You show up to the first day of rehearsals as strangers, and you leave strike as a family.
And then a week later you’re back to your normal life. You see your former cast members at the occasional party or that one lecture you have together. You mean to call them and hang out, but life gets in the way. There’s exams to take, jobs to apply for, Netflix shows to watch. You put off calling because you know they’ll be back to audition for the next show in a matter of weeks. And the cycle continues. And then you graduate.
My college’s student-run theatre company was a ragtag group of STEM, business, and art majors who loved theatre but ultimately had other career goals. We worked hard in the rehearsal room, often collaborating with professional theatre artists from the Philadelphia area, but ultimately didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Working on a show was always stressful, but it was always fun. Sometimes the best respite from deadlines and exams is making weird noises in a vocal workshop or screaming your head off at your scene partner in a production of Crimes of the Heart.
I got involved in theatre later in my college career than I would have liked. In my first two years, I just didn’t feel like I had the time to commit to a show between my heavy course load and other extracurricular activities. Still, I attended each show that year, secretly envious of everyone on stage. They looked like they were having so much fun.
I made a few friends in those first two years, mostly by chance than by choice. We had little in common other than our dorms or majors. Some of those friendships stuck, but I never felt like I belonged to a real group like I did in high school when my life revolved around musical rehearsals and cast parties. I wanted to be a part of something again. I wanted a group of people I could rely on, with whom I shared experiences other than long nights in the library and disappointing frat parties.
In the spring of my junior year, I finally swallowed my fear of rejection and auditioned for The Grapes of Wrath. It was an intimate black box production with an ensemble of 15 or so performers. We ran for three weeks, which, when you’re escaping the Dust Bowl every night, feels more like a year. Naturally, we got to know each other pretty well. We threw parties every weekend, shared secrets, and left our (literal) blood, sweat, and tears on the stage. The people I met on this show would become some of my best friends, mostly because I finally felt comfortable enough to show my full self to them. I had found a crew of kindred spirits. By the end of the run, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but I finally felt like I had a place at my school.
And then it was over. We crammed for finals and made plans for next year. The seniors graduated. I went to LA for the summer, one of the most isolated of my life. Over that summer I took solace in the fact that when I returned to school, I would be welcomed back with open arms by my new family. We would start again, working hard onstage and playing hard in West Philly basements.
I knew it was all going to end, though. I’d have to leave it all behind at the end of senior year and start a new chapter of my life, just as I was starting to feel at home. I’d probably lose touch with some of my newfound family members, just through the nature of post-grad life. I was heartbroken, and I hadn’t even graduated yet.
I hung onto that life for as long as I could. I stayed in Philly after graduation to produce a show for the Fringe Festival with some of my friends. I came back for shows and parties, even after I had moved to New York. Finally at one point, I looked around the room and didn’t recognize a soul. I couldn’t recapture that time in my life. It was really over.
As it turns out, I was okay with that. I had moved on with my life and so had my friends. College can’t last forever, and that is definitely for the best. I cherish the shit out of the people I met through that company and am working on being a better friend to them, even from a distance. If anything, college theatre prepared me for the impermanence of life: one day you’re building the world of 1930s house in Oklahoma, and the next it’s just a pile of flats in the dumpster.
But for a few fleeting moments, you can make magic.