“This play is called Our Town.”
These words open Thornton Wilder’s play, currently running at the Rosebud Theatre Opera House. The production itself, however, is an echo, and a mirror image, of the Our Town that is Rosebud, Alberta. I’m a guest artist in the production, and I’ve been mulling over my experience of the play and the town. Here are some of my thoughts, muddled as they may be.
I came here thanks in part to Rosebud Theatre’s artistic director Morris Ertman, a long time friend and theatre colleague. For some time he’s wanted me to return to the stage, as well as to come perform in Rosebud. He offered me the role of Simon Stimson in Our Town, and I accepted gratefully.
Stimson is the outsider in Our Town. A church choir director who can’t seem to push his choir up to his musical standards. An alcoholic who’s “seen a peck of trouble” about which we never learn the details. A man whose feelings lead him to an irreversible decision about his life.
The most we ever learn about Stimson is from the town doctor, Frank Gibbs, who says, “I guess I know more about Simon Stimson’s affairs than anybody in this town. Some people ain’t made for small town life.” As the actor portraying Stimson, part of my job in rehearsal was to reconstruct the history that led Dr. Gibbs to that conclusion. I won’t go into that history—every actor who’s played the role has created his own—but one thing is clear: he’s in this place, but not part of it.
Of all the possible reasons why Thornton Wilder chose to put such a dark and troubled character like Simon Stimson into a play like Our Town, I believe one of them is to make him the voice of the dispossessed, the excluded, those for whom life held more promise than it delivered to those around them. Stimson is there to trouble the insiders. In fact, Wilder gives him a final speech that, while a warning to all of us, is also a cry on behalf of all outsiders. It is as poignant as Mrs. Loman’s plea in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and in a sense carries the same message: “Attention must be paid.”
At one time or another in our lives, we’ve all been outsiders. Maybe it was at a wedding of a distant cousin, or at a college in a remote city. We’ve all watched the joy and camaraderie around us with a mixture of emotions. We’ve wondered: When will I be included? Will I ever be? Do I even want to be? The impulse is either to hasten the process of inclusion, or to flee back to a former place of inclusion. We want to feel at home, or go home.
These thoughts came to me as I attended the ROSAs, the graduation ceremony for people completing four years of training at the Rosebud School of the Arts, and the awards ceremony for students with exemplary achievements. I came because I was invited, but also because of an outsider’s curiosity.
My experience was the polar opposite of Stimson’s. Some of the cast members from Our Town were joining the Rosebud School of the Arts Guild after completing their studies, and a number of others I’d met here were also receiving awards. Some of what I saw at the ceremony and banquet didn’t have great meaning for me, but I could see how much meaning it had for them.
As the presentation went on, I heard tributes that told me more about these highly talented people, but it had been my privilege to experience only a tiny fraction of their talent first-hand. Warm-blooded icebergs.
My feelings were still like that of an outsider, but took on a different flavour. It was as if somehow I had always lived in Rosebud, but had been in a coma for many years and had missed all of the moments that led to this day.
Unlike Stimson, I realized I’m an outsider with an insider’s pass. Not only at the ROSAs, but every day since I’d arrived, I had met the people that call this place Our Town; given them a wave as I passed them on the street; shared a laugh with them; and learned about their trials and triumphs.
Several people told me how glad they were that I had come to the ceremony. Even though it was a momentous day in their lives, they still took the time to say that to someone who would be leaving in a few weeks, and might not return for a long time, if ever.
No matter, they seemed to be saying. Now that you’re here, you’ll always be here, no matter how long you’re gone. Your role may turn out to be small in the play of our lives, but it’s an important role, and the play wouldn’t be the same without you. After all…
This play is called Our Town.