All Over Creation: Glory Days
When is gazing back at the past looking in the wrong direction?
My companion and I were somewhat dismayed at the timidity of our younger colleagues.
"Why, in our day," I said.
"In. Our. Day," my companion echoed. "Risk. Daring."
"Courage," we said together in our most lionhearted – and, it must be said, self-satisfied – voices.
Let me note here that I wasn't speaking as myself but as the Scarecrow, that straw-stuffed original friend of Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's Oz series. I was playing him in Bright Now Beyond, a new musical adapted from The Marvelous Land of Oz by composer Bobby Halvorson and playwright Daniel Alexander Jones that premiered at Salvage Vanguard Theater in August. In it, the Scarecrow has been rewarded for his heroism in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with the throne of the Emerald City and his chum Nick Chopper, aka the Tin Woodsman, has been made emperor of the Winkies, those yellow-skinned people residing in the western region of this fantasy land. Jones had the two reuniting after years of administrative tedium and so eager to relive the last time in their lives when they knew excitement and danger. Set off by a bit of timorousness from Jack Pumpkinhead, a just-animated Frankenstein's monster of branches, twigs, and a jack-o'-lantern head, the straw man and his metallic pal shake their heads over "these kids today" and launch into a burnished remembrance of their long-ago escapade.
Besides being loads of fun to play such a wonderful character – especially given that my comrade in nostalgia was Robert Pierson, a fine actor who puffed up Nick Chopper with a delightful bravado – the experience reinforced that aversion I've had toward people who live to re-live their old achievements. They give me the uneasy feeling of neglecting the present for the sake of the past, of putting the brakes on what is to cast an eye toward what was. If you're perpetually facing backward, Jones seemed to be asking, how can you see where you're going?
That feeling was still fresh in my mind in the week after Bright Now Beyond closed, when playwright Lisa D'Amour – yes, she of the Obie Award-winning Detroit, currently being produced by Capital T at Hyde Park Theatre – posted on Facebook a photo of a T-shirt advertising FronteraFest '97 with none other than Daniel Alexander Jones, arms upraised in a celebratory V, smiling from it. D'Amour had found the shirt in the midst of a move and felt that tug of the past, calling 1997 "a magical year in Austin" and tagging 18 people in her circle of friends to see who else had one of these vintage garments. Within minutes, responses began to accumulate in what performance artist Kristen Kosmas called a "sweet nostalgia spiral." "What a centrifugal orbit that was," wrote Ruth Margraff of that late Nineties era. "Something in the water or was it just Vicky's far reaching embrace??" – Vicky being Vicky Boone, the visionary and profoundly hospitable artistic director of Frontera Productions, which founded FronteraFest and ran Hyde Park Theatre for most of that decade. It was Boone who had so much to do with bringing Jones, Kosmas, playwright Erik Ehn, and other artists to Austin and exposing local audiences to their adventurous, forward-looking work. And I will confess with no qualms, I found that period to be just as extraordinary and spiced with magic.
Then with the breakneck speed of such social-media interactions, reminiscences gave way to reunion chatter, and people began to talk quite seriously about meeting up again in Austin, as soon as December. And while I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing these gifted artists again, my recent experience with Bright Now Beyond left me with the nagging worry that we might be just one more variation on the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman, communing to rehash some accomplishments of days long gone. How can you tell when you're, as Bruce Springsteen says, "just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of" yesterday?
Well, in this instance, it helped to look at just who was involved in this reunion: award-winning playwrights, dramaturges, performers, educators – not people whose lives had peaked making theatre in Austin in the late Nineties but artists who have gone on to make theatre across the country, indeed, to make a difference in the American theatre, period. They recognize this shared magical moment in the past not as the culmination of something but as the seed. Their backward glance is just that: a brief recognition of what launched them toward the careers they now enjoy before resuming the work in which they're engaged. For them, there's been no "in our day." Their day is still going on.