Kids just know. How to be. CATS.
I’m sitting in an empty black box theater in Santa Barbara with a free moment between two productions of “Cats.” I’m just watching the shows tonight, but this is all part of my current foray into teaching. I’m teaching musical theater to kids for my bread & butter. And to be honest, I’ve never enjoyed my day job more in my life. I’m in heaven. I'm in theater dork heaven. Children have a way of bringing out the purest truth to any art form. Whether we are drawing, dancing, singing, creating a story, or acting - the kids come from an unaffected, honest source of creativity. They seem more connected to that divine spark. They don't have to imitate what it's like to have joy. They just have it. And they are breaking my heart open.
“Cats” is a musical I have always vehemently hated. As a non-dancer, cat hater who loves acting and comedy - Andrew Lloydd Webber’s musical adaptation of TS Elliot’s cat poems always fell flat with me (Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats). I found it boring, nonsensical, serious and LONG.
Leave it to a couple of kids between the ages of 8 and 13 to make me understand and appreciate this legendary show. Between the humorous and heartbreaking - each little performer takes their moment in the limelight to tell the story of their cat. They delight in the spotlight only the way children can - with pure joy! Each one introduces him or herself and prepares for the Jellical Ball and the Jellical Choice - where Old Deutoronmy will choose the Cat who will move onto the next life, in the Heaveyside layer.
Grisabella the Glamor cat is the scraggly, forgotten, lonely, ancient feline - who moves slowly across the stage with only the memories of her days in the sun. In the end, it is she who will be chosen to be reborn again. Watching a 12 year old, with her face to the light, belting out every crystal clear note of “Memory,” brought tears to my eyes. It is the innocent breathing life into the ancient. It was a moment where the young generation paid homage to our ancestors. As Grisabella walked across the stage to the 'otherside' - each cat waved and sang "Up, up, up to the heaveyside layer."
Where else but theater do you see a group of young children creating a meaningful piece of art about death and honoring our elders? It would be hard to get kids to sign up for a camp to do that! But here they are in CATS, profoundly effecting the hearts and souls of the people who have come to see them. Making a difference through performance art.
Theater gives us a space for the young generation to embody the stories of our ancestors. We put on our make-up and masks, we take on the physical nature of those who have gone before us - and we become them. The story comes to life on stage. And the audience is transported. That is the magic of theater. Oral tradition - especially through song - is still one of the most powerful tools for change. And when children are passing the story along - it is that much more distilled and simply true.
These little ones are channeling the great performers and history of the Broadway stage. The ones who paved the way for us all. They are walking in their shoes, and reminding us where we came from and where we can go. They are nodding to the past, while delightfully celebrating the promise of the future! It is a perfect theatrical moment.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to take part in this exchange. Passing on my passion for performing and storytelling through song and plays feels like completing the circle. I was them once. I was 6 years old, belting out “Tomorrow” in a children’s production of “Annie.” I fell in love with the stage when I was the most innocent and hopeful. It was the most beautiful, fun, exciting place I had ever been - and it is where I always wanted to be.
Now, here I am, still. Passing on the torch. Engaging in our oral tradition. Passing along what I was taught and gaining so much more in the process. They are reminding me why I love the stage. Some of us just belong there. Some of us are like Gus the Theatre cat. We'll always be hanging by the theater door, till we grow old and palsy, telling stories of the good old days, and in no rush to go anywhere but there.
Gus: The Theatre Cat
Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door
His name as I ought to have told you before
Is really Asparagus, but that's such a fuss
To pronounce that we usually call him
His coat's very shabby
He's thin as a rake
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake
Yet he was in his youth quite the smartest of cats
But no longer a terror to mice or to rats
For he isn't the cat that he was in his prime
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in his time
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(Which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them if someone else pays
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days
For he once was a star of the highest degree
He has acted with Irving, he's acted with Tree
And he likes to relate his success on the halls
Where the gallery once gave him seven catcalls
But his grandest creation as he loves to tell
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell