Today was the "Celebration of Life" for Matt. It was a very intense day for a whole variety of other reasons, and my plan for the evening involves Fauxmopolitans, eating my feelings in the form of Patrick's famous Orange Chicken dinner, and doing a sage smudge to clear my aura of the many, many energies that are clinging to me tonight.
Below is the text of my speech about Matt today. It went just fine. Many of his friends and teachers spoke, and the ceremony was lovely. My favorite speech came from one of his teachers, who said, "If you miss Matt's smile, then smile. If you miss Matt's laugh, then laugh. If you miss the love he showed you, reach out in love and friendship to someone else. In that way, Matt lives in you." Lovely.
Before I wrap this up, I would like to say that I can't possibly express the sheer "specialness" of this person to people who don't know him. It's not merely the tragedy of losing someone so young. It's the tragedy of losing this very particular, singular, unique and magical person.
Thank you to all of you, my friends, for your support and kindness during this. Next week, there will be some other things to talk about.
A Tale as Old as Time
I have been told that sometimes the inner workings of “theatre people” are mysterious and strange to others. I accept this, and so in order to tell you the story of Matt’s amazing performance Beauty and the Beast, I will try to speak in a more universal language.
Remember in 2004 when the Sox were down three games against the Yankees, and the only possible hope of salvation was to stitch Curt Schilling ankle into that infamous bloody sock? That’s what we did to Matt, and not only did he lead the team to victory, he created a Hero Legend that will be told in years to come.
When the situation occurred last year that required us to find a new Beast, Matt was the first person we asked. “Hopefully it won’t happen, but if we have to have someone new, would you be willing to do it?” He said no. No, because it wouldn’t be right to do that to my friend. No, because I would be too afraid I would mess up and let you down. No, there are too many lines, too much music. No, because you already gave me the part I really wanted (which he called Creepy Asylum Dude.) I told him that I respected that, but would he at least just think about it. He said he’d think about it, and that he wanted to talk it over with his mom. (Which was maybe the sweetest thing I’d ever heard.) Meanwhile, just in case, suggestions were made that I seek out a professional, someone from my extended theatre community who knew the part and could just step in so the show could go on as planned for everyone else. That was our last option. I wanted the kids to have the message that we, as a unit, as a team, could solve any obstacle that came our way. We would manage, together.
Several days later, when we had clarity that we would have to replace the Beast for sure, I pulled Matt aside, and shared my baseball metaphor. “You can do it. We all believe in you. If you do this, you will not be the same person afterwards. You will have proven to yourself that you can do one of the hardest things that anyone ever has to do in life - to be completely, unselfishly brave. To put your heart and soul out to the world. To focus on the goal - saving our show - and face and overcome your fears about yourself in the process. If you can do this - and you CAN - you will forevermore know that truth about yourself. It lives inside of you, Matt. We can see it, and you can trust all of us to be with you on that journey.”
He said yes.
Mr. Richins spent an entire day with Matt, teaching him all of the music, helping him to embody the character in his voice. Pam, Emmy and I drilled blocking and choreography. Grace and his mom helped him learn lines for two days straight. We had planned to have a prompter hidden on the set for him, so he would have that security at all times that he wouldn’t drop a line, “mess things up.” as he feared. By the second dress rehearsal, he looked at me with that lopsided grin of his and said, “Ms. Browne…I got it. I’m all set.”
If you were here for the opening night of the play, perhaps you remember the sold out crowd. Perhaps you remember the standing room only students and parents lining every wall of this auditorium. Maybe you remember the fabulous dance numbers, the splashy costumes, the wonderful voices Emmy and Colin and our whole ensemble. But if you were here, you most certainly remember Matt. At the end of act one, when the Beast has lost all hope, he sings a deeply emotional song, slams the door of his castle and the curtain comes down. The roar of applause and cheering that erupted from this auditorium, even before his last note was finished, was breathtaking. The entire audience rose to its feet. That cheer was the Big Bang from which every future performance in this place will originate. It rings here still, especially today.
At intermission, a friend of mine friend pulled me aside and chastised me for breaking down and hiring a professional to play the role instead of the student I had told him I wanted. It was a student, I promised him. It was our Matt. Another director friend said that his was the single best high school performance of anything she had ever seen. “He learned it in a week,” I told her. “Liar,” she responded.
Matt’s success as the Beast is not merely because he stepped up and learned the part in a week. It’s because he became the role. He let himself in – his own spirit, who, like the character he portrayed, had multi-layered facets to him. He let all of himself shine through. A teacher can coach, plead, and try to methodically guide a person toward that goal, but he is either willing to open his spirit on the stage, or he is not. And Matt was willing, and the audience knew, and that was the magic he made.
That’s what happened to Matt during the show. Here’s what happened to the rest of us, because of what we witnessed from him. We experienced excellence in the face of what might have been disaster. We saw that together, as a team, we can achieve a spectacular goal We hugged and cried together with joy and pride for him, and for us. Our focus for the opening show in this beautiful auditorium became so clear and so unified - support and succeed. Every freshman boy wanted to be Matt, or at least be his best friend. Every girl wanted a boyfriend exactly like him, to look at her the way he looked at Grace. All of us on the staff knew that this, Matt’s journey, was the stuff we, as teachers, live for. Stepping back and watching a student look inside himself and bring out qualities and skills he never knew he had…because we, all of us, helped convince him he could.
Because of Matt, I will have a life-long reminder to never again look at a kid and doubt his untapped potential. I will never forget that the greatest challenges yield the greatest rewards. And I will never forget how fragile life is, and that the little show that might seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, might, for someone, turn out to be the biggest thing of all. I will be ever grateful of that gift, and the many others that Matt’s spirit leaves with us.