Grace Machanic and Her Grand Finale

At the end of every great show you find an even grander finale.  Now, “grand” does not always mean a happy ever after.

At the end of Something’s Afoot, we breathe a sigh of relief as the two character stand triumphant at the end, but the writers of that tale decide to hit us with one final twist, one that leaves us wanting more, mouth agape. Drowsy Chaperone’s chaotic and insane theatrical performance is wrapped up with a sentimental and heartwarming goodbye – a rather open ending to a fantastic show packed with every crazy idea known to man. Even in Godspell, a show that Grace knew inside and out, the characters experience loss and have to deal with the aftermath of it all. During my sophomore year, our director Frank Shutts wanted to end the show with the death of Jesus and our exit, skipping the usual “Resurrection” that comes in combination with the final bows. As a cast, we had to truly place ourselves into the position of coming face to face with loss and making the choice to overcome the sorrow, letting the good memories and lessons learned fill in the void that that loss had formed. We didn’t really believe the adults when they told us that our experience with Godspell would be present in our lives forever.

So, to simply equate “grand” to “happy” is a sad demeaning of what theater is.

Grand means powerful, having a lasting effect, memorable – and each day of Grace’s life reflected the qualities of a beautiful show, so it makes sense that her final exit be just as impactful. Grand finales leave the audience wanting more, and Grace’s grand exit leaves us yelling “encore”, wanting her to be in front of us one more time, and then another time after that. Looking back on the way Grace touched and changed so many people as she danced through life, I am not sure there is any way that the memory of her can ever fade away. She planted seeds in countless tiny dancers, aspiring actors, directors, fellow dancers, teachers, audiences, and those men and women, girls and boys, will carry bits and pieces of her with them in every dance step, in every encore, and in every grand finale.

For many of the people I have had the privilege of performing with during my high school years, this is one of the first encounters we have had with a loss this great. Today, our small worlds were rocked by reality and surely, our minds and hearts confused with why this had to have happened. Each year, we wave a tearful goodbye to a show that captured our hearts for a few months. We take our final bows and give great thanks to the hands that pieced together such a wondrous performance.  When we say goodbye, we know that another year will come, and we will see each other again. We know we will experience the same laughs, stage blunders – and we know that we will see our beloved teachers and directors again. As we look back on the rich performance that was Grace’s life, we give her thunderous applause and a standing ovation, trusting that, while it might take a little longer than we expected, we will see her again.

Post written by Gabby Banniqued

Two Trombonists Plumb New Depths of Expression

13 April 1995

        An overstuffed bowl of gorgeous white lilacs graces the top of my old oak piano; the ceiling fan lazily sends the thick, nostalgic fragrance throughout the house. I sip an iced drink and travel the keyboard contentedly with a languid blues in B flat, satisfied and relieved now that the pressure is off for another year.

        Solo Festival is over in Fairfax, Va.; the student musicians who came to me for piano accompaniment or counsel have lived through their grueling moment before the judge, playing pieces they prepared for weeks or even months on their band instruments. Once again, I reflect on the personal growth in each of us, sometimes in artistry, always in character, as a result of this annual striving to bring out the best in young performers.

        My two trombonists, a boy and a girl, are perfect examples of this growth. I remember watching the boy, recovering from a recent knee operation, limp slowly down the driveway with my music a month or so ago. His temporary setback brought back only too vividly the memory of the girl’s first performance four years before. She had come to me with her arm in a baby-blue cast, having fractured her wrist just before the festival, but determined to learn new slide techniques and capture the top rating anyway.

        When I read through the music this tall young man handed me, I almost despaired. It was a lush, overblown, fin de siècle piece, dripping with emotion. This boy’s enthusiasm was for computers, diving, and an upcoming course in artificial intelligence. How could his teacher expect drama from this raw material?

        By contrast, my female soloist had been struggling with her teacher for weeks over a piece. This ambitious young woman needed to choose something challenging, something so difficult that the line between failure and success would never be crossed until the actual festival performance. As her accompanist, I agonized to dig my fingers into her music in order to begin searching for perfection. Although she seemed to thrive on the knife’s edge, I did not. An accompanist needs to be solid, steady, predictable as the pendulum on a metronome.

        When she finally wrenched a satisfactory solo from her music teacher’s library, I was shocked at the irony of her choice. My two trombonists clearly belonged with each other’s pieces. This girl, who, with her long blond hair caught up in a black-velvet ribbon, seemed suited for a romantic, melodic, well-behaved tune, presented me with a wacky modern Polish duet for trombone and piano that — at first — I thought only an artificial intelligence could love.

        When I attacked my old Baldwin with this piece, I realized that I was at war with my own fingers. The jarring dissonances, random patterns, and constantly shifting rhythms caused me anxiety for the first time in all my years of accompanying students. If I couldn’t learn to find beauty in this piece, the technical challenges would defeat me.

        I began rehearsing with all my students several weeks before the festival day. Predictably, the girl approached even the first rehearsal with an image in her mind of how the piece should sound. There was no opportunity to make light conversation or to make light of mistakes. If the mood didn’t work for her, she would silently place the trombone back in its case and curtly suggest that we try again on another day.

        The computer wizard, however, brought an air of casualness, almost bemused detachment, to his rehearsals. His response to wrong notes was to stop, say, ”That was awful,” and look at his instrument as if it had a life of its own. Nothing upset him; he could practice the same measure over and over again.

        Of all my students, he was by far the least temperamental, the least moody. In fact, my one concern as we moved closer to the festival was that he might not be able to put the moodiness in the piece that clearly needed to be there.

        We began talking about the images his piece called up; I worked harder than usual on my own expressiveness. At last, the music worked its way inside him, and we started to create. This introverted 10th-grader, too busy being brilliant to have ever indulged in deep and meaningful talk about his feelings, suddenly began to find a soul in his trombone and pour it out like stardust over the piano.

        The girl and I discovered a different kind of soulfulness. Once we managed to master the technical difficulties, we began to find an athleticism, a sinewy, tough strength to the piece that only appeared when we played it together. Working together brought us closer together; she found more enjoyment in rehearsing, and I finally found a melody in the music.

        Amazingly, by the time of the festival, we had merged our separate, bizarre voices into one harmony, and there was a haunting, breathtaking beauty to the sound we made. During our performance, the judge actually stopped following the score and stared in admiration at this determined young lady as she wrestled furiously with speed and staccato, and won.

        My limping musician managed to surprise and conquer as well on festival day. We began with the brooding minor strains of the piano introduction. To my immense relief, he came in with a full arsenal of pathos to wow the judge. This piece had all the emotional excesses of a silent movie, with its attendant moods of unrequited love, despairing heroines, and slapstick comedians. He found all those moods in his horn, with enough energy left for a galloping, powerful finale.

        We all knew that we had found our way to some beautiful, transcendent music. At the festival, however, there is still the hour-long wait for the scores to be posted. A lot of character can be built during that hour, wondering about one’s score, and then having to accept it publicly — in good grace — in front of fellow students and parents.

        The boy pulled off his tie and carefully rolled it into a little ball, stuffing it into a pocket. When the low-brass results finally went up and both trombonists spotted their superior ratings, the full, warm smiles on their faces belied any earlier attempts at nonchalance. I hugged them proudly; somehow, they had both become my children during the intensive and emotion-filled month we spent together.

–Cathleen Ann Steg
© 1995 The Christian Science Monitor
reprinted with permission

Maps | A College Essay

Whenever I dust off the cover of a world atlas and open its large, rarely turned pages, I get a whiff of childhood curiosity: my long search for my place in society as a Filipino-American. My parents gifted me map puzzles, pin-maps, and globes over video games as a child to keep me occupied, building the foundation for what would grow from an obsession with identification of countries to an eagerness to learn everything about the world. While history was not a heavy focus in my Montessori curriculum, it drew me in with its promises of stories about mankind: who we have become, who we used to be. I soon found, however, the word ‘we’ was not inclusive. I still have a shelf full of picture books about the 1950s Civil Rights Movement that gives insight to my brief obsession with that part of American history; my mother claims I was once adamant on naming my future children Martin and Rosa. With an immature understanding of history, I saw these abridged glimpses into the American fight towards equality and tried to seek my own history within it, even once asking my mother where my family would sit in a segregated bus. The purely black and white focus in these books set me up with a flawed understanding of where I belonged as an Asian American, leading me to believe that I needed to fall under one or the other: black or white.

History textbooks mirrored these picture books in their inability to include other cultures. “World History” class meant “European History and Others” class – even past elementary school, my peers and I were spoon-fed a Westernized version of history that failed to mention other countries except in the context of colonization. While textbooks have recently gone through a significant change in content, I often wonder how ignorant these textbook writers and editors could be to label any non-Eurocentric history as unimportant. “Unimportant” always seemed to be the word of the day – because I did not see myself in history, in media, or even in my school, after transferring to a middle school with only three other people of color in addition to myself, I began to feel unimportant.

In middle school, I expected theater to be an all-inclusive environment where teachers worked to make sure that no child felt left out. Unfortunately, it was not helpful that there was no precedent for my directors to cast against a character’s given race. If Dorothy had light, fair skin, the girl cast as Dorothy would have the same. In a funny way they eventually did so: casting myself as a black female character, and two young white boys as Chinese characters. The discomfort I, along with the few other people of color, felt during this musical only further engrained into our minds the same repeated message we had always heard, “As a person of color, you are unnecessary.” The Garwood Whaley auditorium stage, where I perform today, was a monumental factor in changing how I viewed myself as a Filipina. For the first time, I had not only seen diversity among characters generally cast as white, but I saw a Filipino boy cast as a lead role in a musical. Reviews of the show praised his exuberance on stage and his reception of an award for his performance affirmed a truth that I had long been blind to: that could be me. My junior year was marked with my role as a lead in our spring musical as well as my nomination for best featured-female actress. That experience helped me recognize the importance of representation and the urgency for it; society is discouraging to people of color in many ways, and not only in the theater and film industries. Representation opens up doors with a resounding shout of, “Look, someone just like you can do this too, why not you?”

Post by Gabby Baniqued

The Best Views | A College Essay

The best views are not seen from the peak of a mountain. Of course, the top is the destination, the reason why we woke up at 2:00 am and started hiking at 3, but the breathtaking view from the top didn’t compare with what I saw in the hours leading up to our final push to the summit.

At the top, we saw clouds that seemed to be just in our reach, mountains that expanded for hundreds of miles and faded to a deep blue, calm rivers, still glaciers, boulders that appeared smaller after having climbed up them. The euphoria of peaking the mountain was unlike anything any of us had felt before. Our noses and cheeks were red from the wind brushing past them and our lungs were hot from the altitude, and yet we didn’t feel anything except for pride and relief. However, although we triumphed that day, my most vivid memories come from our journey.

Around 4:00 am, while it was still dark, we stopped for a break, and instead of continuing our conversations, we stayed silent for one minute. We looked at the sky with its enumerable stars. I thought about how many people the sky might have seen at that moment and about the stories of all those people. I thought about the people in my life, how they were distant like the stars, yet how close I could hold them. The world felt so vast in that moment and I felt so small. I looked around at everyone else and wondered what they might be contemplating, but as I looked at their faces, I saw complete awe, serenity, and wonder, and knew that regardless of what thoughts ran through their heads, they were taking in the moment in its entirety. We were all here, on this vast earth, together. There is something so comforting and profound about being with others in complete silence, even more so when amongst the mountains. All at once, I didn’t feel so small because I was with my closest friends, experiencing something that I could never know at home in my busy life, and I knew that even across the distance, I held those important to me in my heart. After the minute was over, a small voice broke the silence telling us that it was time to go.

That sight of everyone sitting in the dark looking at the same stars and sky, everyone being totally present, was beautiful and will be forever imprinted in my memory. I cherished the time we spent at the peak, but I treasure every moment between our beginning at the trailhead to our finish at the top even more. The conversations, the smiles, the laughs, the challenges, the falls and pickups, those are the things that give substance to our lives. The journey, not the destination, fosters our most valuable experiences and creates our fondest memories.

Later that morning, after the silence but still hours before we had summitted, we watched from the middle of a drainage as a bright red sun slowly ascended over the horizon into a sky of yellows, oranges, pinks, and blues.

Post written by Grace McCaffery