On our way to school last week, Atticus, 12, and I discuss our black cat’s willingness to lie in the driveway, unafraid or oblivious to traffic.
“Like a cat in Pompeii, Mom,” Atticus observes, “Just caught.”
“In lava,” I add, “and left there for thousands of years.”
“Have you been there, Mom?”
“Uh huh, after college. It’s amazing—but sad even all this time later.”
“Just the idea that one minute you are living your life and then, without any warning, you aren’t, but other people come and see what your life was. I don’t know,” I shrug and brush away melancholy, backing down the driveway, avoiding the cat.
Last summer, walking into the Player’s Lodge, I thought of archeology and imagined a fine layer of dust across every surface—that part may not actually be imagined. This is our house—but it’s a shell, a community without its peeps.
The Ensemble Theatre Community School—a community within the community of Eagles Mere, a tiny summer resort on top of a mountain, little village surrounding a small lake, a community that cherishes the moniker, “The town that time forgot.” Eagles Mere is where I spent every summer of my girl hood. ETC became my “safe place,” a place which felt entirely of our own devising because it was.
Small Headline in an imaginary local paper: The Ensemble Theatre Community School, established in 1984 to offer high school students an amazing residential summer theatre program, breathed its last without anyone really noticing in 2011. The school’s founders, Ann V. Klotz and her husband, Seth Orbach, greyer versions of the eager young couple who arrived in Eagles Mere to bring theatre back to the mountain, when reached for comment, sighed, shrugged.
“We’re on hiatus,” Seth remarked, Ann looked less certain.
Less certain. Older. More vulnerable?
The story of ETC is the story of my marriage, of falling in love with a man who shared my passion for sitting in a dark barn-like space and watching plays come alive with teenagers who had never before considered heightened text or knew what it was to depend—really depend—on another actor in an ensemble. Theatre is about magic: ephemeral, transformative magic.
In 1984, Seth, then my boyfriend, Eleanor, who had produced the plays I had directed in college, and I started a summer theatre training program for high school students. We rented the Players’ Lodge, a rambling house that had housed actors, who, from the 1940’s till the 1970’s made plays in Eagles Mere under the direction of a formidable teacher named Alvina Krause.
The Player’s Lodge, a house less charming than most of the rambling summer cottages in Eagles Mere, stood in the center of the town–clapboard, the back wing tacked on and leaning arthritically away from the original structure, some tiny stained glass panes winking from the many-mullioned third floor gables, a barn behind the back porch. It’s nestled between the dark-shingled Presbyterian Church and the Sweet Shoppe, which sells ice cream. Though its porch is too narrow and the living room is an awkward shape, upstairs there are enough bedrooms for our faculty and students.
Seth and I slept, that first summer, on a red foldout couch behind the office—a long sliver of a room that ran the length of the house where we had our desks and the copy machine my mother had purchased for us. We had computers, too, then, but barely.
When we first rented the Players’ Lodge, it had been vacant for more than a decade. The attic was still collaged with 1960’s magazine clippings, a relic evoking earlier theatre giants who had made plays in Eagles Mere: Paula Prentiss, Robert Reed, Patricia Neal, Charlton Heston. We planted a garden, hoping to distract parental eyes from the peeling robin’s egg blue paint with cosmos and zinnias and snapdragons and delphinium. While our landlord had worked to get the house ready for us in late June, he had not had time to paint it.
I was 23 that summer and Seth was 26.
We had planned for a year and begged for money and advertised and hired a faculty and found twelve students to come to be with us to study theatre for six weeks. We scrubbed and bought curtains and swept and cleaned windows with newspapers and purchased fans and screens and dishes—spatterware in bright colors made of tin. We planned classes and thought about the school we wanted to be, all of us stretching, yearning towards creating something new. The first morning, we turned on the kitchen light switch, and water streamed down from the lighting fixture—we called the plumber as we would often that first summer—there were still items on the renovation punch list.
The Eagles Mere community wrapped their arms around us.
People donated bunk beds, overstuffed chairs, tired couches, kitchen equipment, fur stoles, dressmaker dummies. We were starting from scratch. Others wrote checks, came to our productions, offered flashlights when we had a power failure, delivered leftovers after weekend house parties.
Our purpose, to bring theatre back to Eagles Mere, pleased those who had been accustomed to a full season of theatre back in the days when seven grand old hotels ringed the lake. We would do only two plays at the end of July, with the cast of one show serving as the crew for the next and performing in repertory for six nights.
We were heady with the chance to make theatre the way we believed it needed to be made—as an ensemble with every member of the group pulling his or her weight, rich in love and respect.
Faculty and students cooked meals together, built scenery together, did dishes side by side, focused lights, washed load after load of laundry. Kids took impossible risks, which only now that I have run a real school, do I shudder at. Perched high in the beams of our theatre, they focused lights without harnesses. And they took emotional risks, too, confronting demons and pain, coping with anger and grief and situations they should not have had to manage and we helped, I think.
Those risks I am glad to have witnessed—there’s something safer about a space away from the pressures of our every day lives—and Eagles Mere was such a space—leafy, warm, mosquito-free, so safe that we left our keys in the car and never locked the house.
We talked about group process, about how to live respectfully when people came to the enterprise with different values, experiences, faiths, beliefs. We developed rituals: Warm Ups and Unwinding framed the day. Our classes pushed kids to delve into text, make bold choices, seek emotional authenticity.
We were so young, but we were flushed with love.
After opening night that first summer I wept, feeling that I had not brought the company of The Cave Dwellers far enough, and on a musty foldout couch, Seth asked me to marry him. He says he asked me so that he could go to sleep, but I cried harder and demanded that we get up and walk over to the steps of the Presbyterian Church (which was not even my church), so we would not have to tell our children we had gotten engaged on a fold-out couch.
The next year, we got married once the program ended.
We kept coming back, making plays, learning, and teaching and falling into bed each night so tired that we felt leaden, but jubilant, too, that something we had made shimmered out each summer. In the winter, in NYC, waiting for our own children to arrive, we licked envelopes, sent out mailings. Seth went back to graduate school so that we could both be on an academic schedule. Eleanor, busy with her own career and husband, could not spend summers with us anymore.
The babies we yearned for did not come, so we poured all of our love into adolescents passionate about theatre. When our daughters did arrive, we shared them in this Eden of our making. Larry, our music teacher, explained that Utopian visions were always unattainable, but the quest to reach that Utopia had worth of its own.
We stood at the center, and our life radiated from ETC.
I close my eyes and see Miranda and Cordelia, our daughters, toddling through theatre games on the town green, napping in the DeWire Center during tech rehearsals, appearing onstage in children’s theatre pieces, squealing with delight as Kevin, our technical director, tossed them high. ETC became the story of our family, the center from which our life and pattern as a family extended, web-like.
Then, Atticus, unexpected, amazing, a little son born in the middle of an ETC season—two weeks ahead of his due date, which would have been load-in, the day each summer when we turned the DeWire Center into a theatre. That summer, former faculty, and alums flocked to Eagles Mere. Labor began during one of our Circles, a ritual for clearing the air. Seth, puzzled, demanded, “Why did you break the rule and let _________ talk for so long.”
I zapped back, “Because I am timing my contractions and they’re three minutes apart, so I think we need to drive to the city.”
After our son’s early debut, we returned to Eagles Mere. I sat on the porch and nursed, at the center, but removed from the swirl of the program’s last weeks.
And then—I do not want to write this part. And then, it got harder.
In Ohio, now headmistress of a girls’ school, I ceded my credibility as a drama teacher, a reputation nourished in NYC. Our own children grew. Summers grew more complicated in my life and in the world. Fewer families wanted a six-week program; it was harder to recruit students; young faculty members got drunk one summer and let us down. The program shrunk in size and length. Seth and I were tired, weary of trying to keep it all going. The program began to feel more albatross than joy. I did it for Seth. He did it for me. It felt like grit we could not wash away; a household project left too long unattended. Saggy.
That first summer, Seth had performed a daring feat, dragging a trunk in which bees had built a hive out of the barn we needed to use for rehearsal into the woods behind the property. The bees swarmed and vanished. We peeled Seth, our hero, out of his protective gear donned in advance of this crazy, crucial act. I think about that sometimes—blind courage and a folly ending well.
For a long time, what we made ended well. And there was celebration. And then it dissolved around us. Finally, we agreed to take a hiatus—one we are still taking. One that stretches forward.
Going into the house feels funeral. Pompeii again.
Everything is there, waiting. Posters from every production, lovingly silk-screened and framed, line the walls. Index cards bearing theatrical vocabulary printed in Sharpie are hung on moldings, by windowsills, along the edge of the living room arch. There’s the emotional map we painted one summer so we could know—through pushpins—how everyone was feeling.
The chalkboard with the schedule from 2011 still written on it is hung half way up the stairs. In the office, schedule boards filled with neon post-its flutter tacked to the wall. The spatter ware–27 years of use rendering mugs and bowls and plates dented and dinged stand in the dining room cupboard. In the living room, I note the mismatched lumpy furniture. Next, to the kitchen door, a life-size poster of the Muppets that we hung in the dining room that first summer so that William, son of two of our faculty members, could chortle, pointing at Miss Piggy from his highchair, shows the effects of age. I run my fingers over the dial of the rotary phone by the porch door. I gaze at the shelves of scripts in the library, each volume familiar.
There are no kids here, leaning into one another tired, giddy after a long rehearsal, munching popcorn during Unwinding, listening to Larry plunking out the Tones. There are no breakthroughs when, in class, Kyra suddenly allows a sonnet to mean something in her own life, when she drops her guard and is, wholly, unabashedly, vulnerable. There are no props lent to us by townspeople, no scent of silk-screen ink, no tiny shoes belonging to one of our own toddlers littering the front hall.
There is no young version of myself, so sure of her leadership, so clear and confident and young and full of yearning and flushed with feelings—she’s been replaced by a woman with grey in her hair, a mom of three, a teacher, still, but barely, who has run a girls’ school in Cleveland for twelve years—a much more complex organization with more people to be pleased.
That headmistress remembers, with some longing, her young self’s certainty and ease, who used theatre only as the vehicle to encourage her students to live into being their best selves. Perhaps that younger self of mine still pulses, but she is weary tonight.
Inspire is Greek for “breathe life into.” We did that for almost three decades.
ETC was our community, breathed into life and now, un-dramatically, no longer breathing. I grieve and the thought of trying again, knowing all I know, stops me. We are the curators of a relic, a sort of shadow school that exists now in memory though its physical being could be occupied in a flash—if a flash were all that was necessary
Still, we made it—Seth and I and Eleanor and Kerro and Larry and Kevin and Maggie and Lex and Paul and Jay and Kyra and Alicia and Caroline and Kara and Carolyn and Alixa and our own girls and so many others—and, and, and…and we are still here, still alive if melancholy. We’ve been married for more than thirty years.
A few weeks ago, Eleanor and I went shopping and dipped into shared memories of making plays. There are always stories—one recollection begets another. Dylan Thomas says at the beginning of Under Milkwood, ETC, ’89, “Time passes, come closer now, time passes.”
Atticus asks about once a month, “Will you do ETC for me, Mom? Will you do it ever again?”
I don’t know, son. I do not know.