I can remember when I was younger, my grandmother had a VHS tape of “Cats: The Musical.” I must’ve only been two or three when she showed it to me, but I loved it. Some kids grew up watching Disney movies or cartoons on tv, and while I watched both extensively, most kids have that one movie or show or video that they watch over and over a thousand times; mine was Cats. Every time I went to my grandmother’s house, I would sit on a warm fuzzy blanket in the middle of the living room about six feet away from the television and watch Cats, completely entranced by it. I would never sing along, or try and dance with them; I was perfectly content to just observe the spectacle. And observe, I did. When I was maybe around five years old, a live production of Cats was to be held in town by a traveling theatre troupe. If I had to pick a highlight of the first decade of my life, with what little memory I have of it, it would be seeing Cats live with my grandmother.
That was my exposure to the theatre for the longest time until I was about fifteen, I suppose. There was a small community summer theatre about an hour away that hired everyone from college kids to seasoned professionals to put on shows every weekend all summer long. The first time my grandmother approached me about going, the summer after my freshman year in high school, I was hesitant, but I went along anyway. It was wonderful. That soon became an integral part of my summer.
The whole evening was an experience. I can remember making the hour drive there on a Thursday or Friday evening, with the rolling hills of rural Indiana in front of us in the distance and the gargantuan trees looming up on either side of the road, long stretches of forest layered with long stretches of a clearing. The setting sun always at our backs, making what seemed like the whole earth glow. I can remember passing lone farmhouses along these old back roads. My grandmother could point to most any of them and tell you about the people who lived in them, how they knew her father, and which of them sold the best farm eggs or had the nicest kids, many of whom knew my father. This was her country and she knew it well. I can remember stopping for supper in the town just before the one with the theatre. There were several places we liked to go to, and we had “our seat” in all of them. We must’ve solved all the world’s problems while we sat in those booths.
I remember the second play I ever saw at that theater was about four special needs men who lived in a group home and their social worker who loved them all to death but was burned out on life. My mother’s youngest sister had Down's Syndrome, and something about the play hit home for me. I never interacted much with my mom’s family when I was younger, but I knew that there was something different about my aunt. I just didn’t know how to interact with her. Nevertheless, my mother always taught me that she was still a human being, still an adult, and still my aunt, and each of those titles gave her a new and increasing level of respect. So I treated that aunt just as I would any other member of my family, but I still didn’t much understand my aunt. That was easily one of the funniest plays I ever saw, but it showed me a new dignity that members of the special needs community — including my mother’s sister — possessed that I’d never seen before; not because it wasn’t there before, but because I’d never bothered to look.
I think I took something like that away from every show my grandmother and I saw there. If my grandmother did as well, we never spoke about it. I think she just appreciated art for the sake of art, but I learned so much on those evenings. The second summer she and I went, I was sixteen and newly permitted to learn to drive, so she helped teach me, and before long I’d drive the hour long trip home. It sounds so pretentious, sharing stories with your friends at school in the fall about your summer and telling them “I spent my summer attending plays with my grandmother at a small theatre,” but in reality, having learned so much from those trips about life and the people living it, those evenings were some of the most humbling experiences of my life.