Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Life Changing Theatre

For new readers of this blog who might have come here because of the New York production of THE BIG VOICE, you might have seen the part of the show where we talk about how "life changing" THE LAST SESSION was for us and for the people in audiences everywhere it played. But it also had a profound effect on the lives of many of the actors who played the role.

I learned this recently when I was alerted to a MySpace blog entry by Denver Post "chronicler" and critic, John Moore. John held a trivia contest using a photo of the Denver cast of TLS. Then, out of the woodwork, came two beautiful posts from two of the castmates, the utterly adorable Step Pearce and the luscious Carla Kaiser.

When I read their posts, I was left in tears. It's the kind of thing one dreams of as a writer, that their work can have a real life positive effect on someone's life. This one, first from Carla:
Ohhhh My GOD!!! John I cannot believe you posted this photo! WOW -- the memories! I must, MUST say that this show was the best experience of my life. Personally, I had just divorced from my husband, who believe it or not, "came out of the closet" about a year and a half before this production. Coincidently, the character I played in "The Last Session" 'Vicki' was married to 'Gideon' who also "came out of the closet" during their marriage ... therefore, it was a show that really helped me and so many others heal from a common and devastating reality. Many lovely people from varying ages and experiences came to our production. And many of them attended several times. Also, many of them were gays and lesbians that came to our show with their parents and/or families in an effort to help them better understand what they were going through.

I cannot tell you how many nights the cast would sit and speak with audience members until all hours of the night about this misunderstood time in their life. IT WAS INCREDIBLE and forever changed my life. SUCH A BLESSING!!! In fact, "The Last Session" fans held a convention in Denver during the run of our show which included the attendance of the writer/composer of the show Steve Schalchlin. Not only did he come to the show but performed in a special one night performance of "The Last Session", as Gideon. The entire experience was magical and one I could have live and loved forever. Without John Mandes and the incredible cast and crew of this production this experience would never have been possible. I am forever grateful! Thank you again and again for posting this very special photo!

Always, Carla Kaiser Kotrc

I had no idea the cast held all these talkbacks to audiences, helping them and counseling with them. How different this is from just doing a show then going home to watch TV and eat. I just really had no idea. And as beautiful as Carla's story was, it was Step Pearce's entry that really got to me.

The Last Session was an amazing experience. It was my first serious musical. I stood among these power-house voices shaking in my weejuns, but the cast, the director, and Jeff, the MD, pushed me, taught me and made me feel "in my element."

The Last Session was life changing for everyone involved; that's not an exaggeration. In at least one case, it was literally life-saving.

The emotional response from the audience was palpable every night. The struggle and the journeys are universally resonant. Audiences were often unable to leave the theater; impromptu talk-backs and sharing sessions cropped up in the wake of the performance.

That process was (and is) intensely personal to each of us. Breakdowns were common in rehearsal - never temperamental fits, but honest emotional eruptions - and the sincere, loving support of this incredible team ministered to deep wounds. We were led by John Mandes, himself a cancer survivor. He fostered this incredible atmosphere of openness and affection, and all of the emotional baggage that we released along the way enriched our performances.

I had tested HIV + relatively recently. This was the first group I could openly, seriously share with. Gideon's desire to take his own life before the disease did directly mirrored my feelings. I felt owned by the virus, and I was doing my darndest to alienate everyone who cared about me. Faced with the specter of ugly death, it's tempting to shut people out of your life. It feels altruistic; the less people love you, the less they'll suffer with you, the less they'll mourn you. His friends' aggressive insistence that they would rather be at his side, shredding their hearts as he struggles for breath than lose even one day with him had profound impact. The Last Session helped me reclaim a sense of self worth when I had come to think of myself as The Worthless AIDS Faggot.

I had also recently informed my Born-Again Christian parents of my HIV status. My Dad drove out to see this show (the one and only show of mine either of my folks have seen since college) tuning in to Rush Limbaugh the whole trip. My character, Buddy, was a Born Again Christian singer who had wormed his way into this recording session to meet Gideon, a hero of his from the radio. Buddy's initial judgment of Gideon's life and "God's punishment" of AIDS is a primary conflict of the show. Buddy's not a caricature or a villain, though. His eventual turn-around and even his early admonishments are from a place of love.

Steve Schalchlin's insight is that Real Christians are the most loving folk around. All they need is permission to move past prejudice into acceptance. After seeing the show, my Dad choked back tears to say, "It must have been very hard for you to say those judgmental things. I hope you know we don't think of you that way." I didn't know that. The last time we'd discussed my life, I was told I was posessed by a demon, but through prayer, God would show me the light. My father knew next to nothing of gay folk or HIV... certainly nothing positive, but The Last Session touched him and gave us a new way to communicate.

It's an immeasurably powerful and important piece.
Yes, it is my personal experience that "Real" Christians can be the most loving people if they are given permission to love. Unfortunately, they are usually told something different. They are too often told to shun their gay kids, to throw them out into the streets, to practice "tough love," to toss them into ex-gay concentration camps and to fight like hell to prevent gay people from having equal rights in the public sector.

The "Christianists," as Andrew Sullivan calls them, have taken hold of American Christianity and refuse to let go. Their agenda of intolerance and hate have betrayed their own people and their own congregations. I'm humbled and awed that The Last Session became a healing for families struggling with this issue. I'm even more proud that Step, Carla and the rest of the cast were able to use TLS and its message of inclusion and tolerance to heal their own hearts and families.

Thank you, Carla and Step, for allowing me to reprint your entries. I love you guys with all my heart.

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