I am compelled to write tonight.
The kids and I went to a performance by the local theater company, a small nonprofit like so many others across the U.S. dedicated to giving young people living in flyover territory the chance to participate in the performing arts by working with a few local talents that have seen some measure of success in larger markets.
But it was anything other than generic. It was magical.
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First, Frog and Toad. And Arnold Lobel.
I know next to nothing about this author, apart from what is on Wikipedia and the kind of general familiarity with a name and a face that one builds after encountering them over and over again for years, beginning in grammar school.
Here’s the thing. Arnold Lobel is one of those national foundations that flies under the radar, largely forgotten and unheralded by the adults, the elite, or anyone but the anonymous community of underpaid school librarians.
But we all read him. Every kids for generations who grew up in America’s public schools would recognize the characters, and at least some of the stories, even if they were never big readers.
And the magic is that Lobel teaches, at a first grade reading level, nearly every foundational moral and interpersonal lesson that matters, in this or any culture—and does it in a way that is enchanting, amusing, often deeply moving, and deceptively sophisticated.
Arnold Lobel, whoever he was and whatever he was like, is nonetheless the type of person who—on the strength of his creations—tends to make one believe in God.
The Frog and Toad stories are amongst the most edifying bodies of work in all the English language, whether one is a child or an adult. I am profoundly grateful that he existed.
And the spirit of his writing is preserved in the two-plus-hour stageplay by the Reale brothers. How this is possible is beyond me, even after having seen it. Once again, one is tempted to refer helplessly to providence.
— § —
This local nonprofit theater group makes miracles. Over and over again. This is a tiny, tiny market, particularly for theater. This is not a highbrow population. Neither is it a lowbrow population sprinkled throughout with elite benefactors from Ivy League schools who work hard to “make a difference” by bringing the best of their craft to local underprivileged folk.
It is a homogenous, largely uniform population of middlebrow consumer monoculture, the type that subscribe to cable and go to see blockbusters at the cinema, with almost no variation.
The theater is literally empty half of the time for their performances, and their performances are shockingly cheap. It actually costs more to take your kids to see Storks or Inside Out or whatever Disney or Pixar have recently produced.
And yet this performance was perfectly cast, expertly and creatively staged, and effortlessly executed. The singing and dancing and choreography compare favorably to what I’ve seen in much larger markets, yet with a much greater level of intimacy and genuineness.
The curtain comes down with a bow and by the time you have stood up, left your seats, and made your way back into the light, there the entire cast stands, on your way to the door, ready to shake hands and chat, all smiles.
This is what theater can be, ought to be. It is magical. SCERA is a gem. Top-quality theater at nearly-free prices in a community setting so intimate that you forget you don’t know them all personally.
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Finally, the experience.
Only a few times in one’s life does one get the chance to experience one of those really special live performances, when magic happens and quite unexpectedly, the stage comes entirely to life for an evening, leaving audience and cast transformed and better people afterward.
It’s hard even to outline what causes this to happen. What are the necessary conditions? You can name some of them. They have to do with all of the things I’ve already mentioned—casting, stage and prop design, choreography and son on. But those qualities aren’t enough.
Something else has to happen—a kind of merging of the cast into one another, a losing-of-themselves in the work that then spreads to the audience, who in turn joins the cast entirely in the moment, and the whole room beings to live and breathe as a single, joyous thing.
I used to bristle at commonplace phrases like “a kind of magic happens,” and at academic elusions like “collective effervescence,” but the older I get, the more I get it. It doesn’t have a more descriptive or technical phrase associated with it because no one is yet sure just what it is or why it occurs—they know only how they feel in the moment, and how they feel afterward. They feel as though they have taken another rare step toward enlightenment, as though their humanity has been honored and served by their participation in something secret and beautiful.
— § —
Put all of these things together with my own life and where I am in it right now—seasons changing, as it were (if you’ll forgive the heavy and rather trite metaphor), time and change and yet also solidity and deep truths recently always on my mind—combined with the presence of my own two children, who grew up on my readings of Frog and Toad stories to them—and I exited the theater tonight deeply moved and quite literally changed in some way.
It has been a very long time since I felt so at peace, so fulfilled, and yet at the same time so unguarded and untroubled by the passage of time.
— § —
Frog and Toad are beautiful.
SCERA is beautiful.
Local community is beautiful.
Childhood is beautiful.
True friendship is beautiful.
Eternal truths of the human experience are beautiful.
A Year with Frog and Toad was beautiful.