The Actual Dance, for those not familiar with the show, is about the ritual of facing the loss of the person you love most in this world to cancer. The show of course has a surprise and happy ending.
Yet for many people, and especially seniors, the ending is different. Many in the audience last night had been through the loss of a spouse. It can become difficult for them to watch a piece of theater that so realistically replays some of the worst times of that journey. Sometimes even too difficult and people have had to leave the theater.
Last night with an audience seeming in their mid to late 80’s I could tell from the stage that a number of people were becoming uncomfortable. A few left. I wondered in my own mind if it wasn’t unfair because I was weaving a story where the expected outcome suddenly doesn’t happen. Can a happy outcome be unfair to people whose own experience didn’t get so lucky? I think probably yes and will now let audiences know before the show starts that it has a happy ending.
Yet that isn’t what I learned. Rather, the couple that came up to me after the performance were clearly struggling with what they had just seen. Each had lost a spouse many years ago, and the show had them reliving that experience. And then they said: “Thank you.” Even after many, many years the experience – the ritual – of going through such a loss can be and often is chaotic. The mind focuses on specific moments, words events that are seared into memory.
What The Actual Dance did, I was told, was to give a form or a shape to what happened those many years ago so that it made more sense to them. Even a quarter of a century later. The shape of the experience was more coherent and meaningful with the gift of words said out loud – words that usually are not given voice. Instead we try to put the entire experience away somewhere not to be recalled.
Theater in some ways is meant to give voice to the darkest thoughts and fears we have in our heads. A gift perhaps of The Actual Dance that I didn’t understand is that it can help resolve even long ago experienced pain and grief by helping to form the chaos into a coherent shape that gives understanding and comfort.
The Shape I think becomes apparent from the line:
“I understand now that the actual dance will be the ultimate consummation of our love.”