Finding my way back to gratitude.

Until a little more than a week ago,I was involved in a production of Les Miserables. It has been a bit of a life goal. Without a doubt it is my favourite musical, for its gritty story of grace and its anthemic music. Over the last four months I have immersed myself in the character of Marius, the young man who falls in love, loses his love, risks his life for a revolution, and then finds himself saved and returned to his beloved, without a clue of how it all happened. While many characters in Les Mis make sacrifices, Marius is one of those who benefits from those sacrifices, mostly unwittingly. It was a challenging part to play, a challenge that I relished.

Being in the show at all was something of a unexpected blessing. It shouldn’t have worked out, but it did. I enjoyed the rehearsals immensely. Getting to know a bunch of people nutty enough to give a chunk of their life to tell this incredible story was so rich and rewarding. I even felt like I didn’t need the performances, the rehearsals had been so satisfying.

But of course there were performances, and the response was incredible, and we had to schedule an extra show. Having ‘found’ my Marius through those months of rehearsal, after those opening few shows I was bombarded with responses from members of the audience. Don’t get me wrong, they were all so positive and encouraging – but somehow they shifted my focus. Instead of holding Eponine in my arms as she (spoiler!) died, and being heartbroken for this wasted life, I found myself seeing it through the audiences eyes, wondering what I was doing that moved them, that made them cry, and so on. It felt like an out of body experience. Something of the simplicity of playing Marius was slipping away from me. I spoke to a few fellow performers. I was overthinking it, I needed to face the audience and then forget about them. I needed to get back to the basics. I did. It was better.

But as the performances slipped by, I found myself counting, specifically counting down. After the first weekend, we had done 3, and had 6 more. That was ok, we were only one third done. But by Wednesday we had done 5 and were over halfway. Something like a silent panic was settling in on me. I knew I was going to be more than a little bereft when the show was over, and I was desperately trying to drink the experience in as slowly as I could. But I couldn’t slow it down enough. I kept finding myself mid-show reflecting on which parts were already over, ‘Oh man, we’ve already done ‘Heart Full of Love, at least ‘A Little Drop of Rain’ is still to come.’ It meant lots of the show was spent with a mixture of regret and anticipation. I wasn’t as present as I needed to be.

It came to Thursday night. We had done the 6th show.Only 3 remained, and they were crammed in; Friday night, then Saturday matinee and Saturday closing night. In that last 24 hours it would be all over. I spoke to a friend. I knew I couldn’t let these last shows drown in this feeling of desperate anxiety. Of course I was going to be sad when the show was over, but it was like that sadness had jumped forward into the present where it didn’t quite belong. I was still playing Marius, we were still putting the show on to packed houses and receiving amazing responses from the audience. Yet here I was grieving as if it was already over.

My friend (being a Presbyterian minister) pointed me to the moment Jesus is on the cross, flanked by the two thieves. The first thief represents the past; ‘Aren’t you meant to be the Messiah?’ he asks of Jesus. The second looks to the future, ‘When you come into your kingdom, remember me.’ But, my friend pointed out that Jesus alone grounds himself in the present when he says, ‘I tell you, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.’ He encouraged me to live as deeply into the present as I could, and let the sadness (and whatever surprising joy awaited me) meet me tomorrow where it belonged.

So I found my way back to gratitude. I re-found the simplicity of playing Marius, a dreamer whose heart was torn between fighting with his friends, and following his beloved. I found deep joy in all the scenes, not just the ones I had big songs in. I found myself breathing more slowly, having fewer nervous moments, enjoying the show from the wings more.

And through each of those final three shows, I found myself thankful that the whole mad adventure had happened at all. I could sense a temptation to count down the number of times I would get to sing that song, to play that scene, to get dragged down the trapdoor in the stage while I pretended to be dead. But I held them at bay, and instead drank each moment as it came, and let it pass, grateful that it had come at all.

On the last night, I was in the wings waiting to go on for the last number of the first half, ‘One Day More’. It is the musical highlight of the show. As I stood behind my mate Rob waiting to go on, I reflected that this was one of the happiest moments of my life, this time just before I walked on stage and, with 60 of my friends, created one of the most challenging and inspiring pieces of music ever. I took a deep breath and exhaled. Rob noticed and he turned and enquired, ‘Why are you breathing down my neck?’ and I responded, ‘Just a deep sigh of satisfaction’. We went and sang for all we were worth and left the song in the hearts and memories of the 220 people in the audience that night. And I was at peace.

Do I wish I had come to this realisation about the importance of gratitude earlier? Do I wish I had spent less time fretting and more time being thankful? Of course, but I don’t spend any energy on that, otherwise I find myself caught in another spiral of ‘should’s’ which is precisely the spot I just got plucked out of! What I am is really grateful that I was brought back to seeing this show as a gift to enjoy, rather than a task to perfect, or a memory to clutch hold of before it was too late.

It is over now. My mind is full of lyrics, melodies, movements and expressions that are now redundant, and the very notion seems absurd, given how central they have been for the last few months. And is there sadness? Of course. After all, that sadness belongs here and now. The sadness speaks of something glorious and hard-fought that has now come to an end. But it is not merely sadness, it is a sweet sadness.

If I were an artist, I would now have a new colour with which to work into all my future works of art. Being part of this show has shaped and coloured me. I am left with more than memories. That shaping did not finish when we turned and walked off the stage for the last time. I have learnt about myself as a performer and a musician, as a friend, husband and father. I have encountered a delightful range of people who I’ve learnt from and about. I’ve become used to meeting people who look ordinary only for them to reveal extraordinary talents. Its helping me slow down as I let beauty unfold before my eyes. I have spent four months inside this story of betrayal and grace, oppression and liberation, suspicion and open-handed generosity. This cannot have left me untouched.

So I am sad it is over, but so very glad that it happened. And now I look forward to see what life might look like with this new colour I have to splash around.

The stunning images are courtesy of Kirsten McIntyre Photography.

AUTHOR: Malcolm Gordon
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