Bats in our belfries
It was supposed to be one night.
That was the thought that crossed my mind as I carried my props out of the theater at St. Lawrence Arts, post-production, on June 7 — well, that and Where the hell are my roadies? Did Elaine Stritch lug her own gear? Cher? Exactly my point.
I had just completed a run of three sold-out performances of my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, marking my fourteenth time treading the boards (that’s what all us fawncy theatrical types call it) at that venue, and my twenty-somethingth overall. The month before, I made my Off-off Broadway debut at Stage Left Studio theatre to two full houses, thanks, in no small part, to the heroic arm-twisting of friends and in-laws and my niece who lives in New York. Three days after my St. Lawrence shows, I worked another full room at the august Stonington Opera House at the tip of Deer Isle.
Prior to these recent performances, I had presented My Mother’s Clothes at Bay Path University in western Massachusetts, where I also served as writer-in-residence for a week, and all over Maine: at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, the Magic Lantern in Bridgton, the Rockport Opera House, and even at The Rack, a bar and BBQ joint at Sugarloaf, where I had to make my entrances and exits through a side door that opened onto a porch in the sub-zero out-of-doors. Fortunately, none of my friends there thought it would be a fun trick to turn the pin on the door’s lock — though I suppose I shouldn’t be planting any ideas here, in case I ever bring the show back to The Rack.
I even did two turns in my hometown of Bath, at the Chocolate Church, where, by the bye, I was baptized and attended Sunday school. When I did my first tech check there and stood under those lights, I announced, “I’ve worked this stage before,” a reference to my 1970 tour-de-force performance as an elf in my youth group’s production of Babar’s Christmas. (Babar’s Christmas? Yes, this was a Congregationalist church; and, no, we did not serve gin-and-tonics at the social hour following Sunday morning services.)
All this touring and hoo-ha has been the result of one fateful phone call made in May of 2011. I had just returned from two weeks in Bethel, where I had started work on a memoir about my mom, two years after her death. In my nearly two decades of column-writing, she made frequent appearances, usually introduced by the phrase, “My poor mother,” given the fact such a stylish and elegant woman had spawned such a slob daughter. But as she began her decline and I continued to write about her and document all these new changes, I couldn’t very well publish those pieces and have her see them. As fate would have it, I frequently teach at writers’ retreats, where instructors are asked to give readings in the evenings. These retreats proved a perfect place to try out this material. In doing so, I found that people were hungry to talk about dealing with aging parents and all the baggage — literal and figurative — one is burdened with when they pass. I knew someday I would write a book on the topic, and my 2011 stay in Bethel started the process.
But when I got back to Portland, I had a crazy idea. I had already road-tested a lot of the scenes I was working on. Prepping to read before an audience always serves as my best editor. What if I scheduled a night at St. Lawrence Arts and created a program by stitching together these proven pieces and some new ones? Just something to give the book a jumpstart. Just one night.
So I called my old pal Deirdre Nice, the art center’s director, and the next thing I knew I was on their calendar and website for September. When I saw the listing, I had two immediate thoughts: Uh-oh and I better get to work.
I first met Deirdre in 1994, when I was arts editor at Casco Bay Weekly and she and a partner had just purchased a heap of derelict, decaying stone at the crest of Munjoy Hill otherwise known as the St. Lawrence Church. They were going to save it. My job was to write a cover story about this pipe dream/boondoggle-waiting-to-happen. I already had my headline: “Fool On The Hill.”
I will never forget our first meeting. (It’s not that my memory is that good. I cheated and referenced the story from CBW’s archives via the Portland Public Library’s Digital Commons website. Ongoing thanks to librarian Abraham Schechter, who spearheaded CBW’s preservation project.) Deirdre and I — both then in our early 30s — sat in the bell tower not long after the papers were signed. The wind whipped around us. Our butts were frozen, and the fog was rolling in, yet we still had spectacular views of Casco Bay, the kind of views people are now paying very large sums of money to enjoy. The purchase price of the church? (If you are anywhere near a developer, empty your arms to catch her in a swoon.) As reported in my article: $71,000.
Still, that was big bucks to the two partners — especially considering the amount of money required just to stem the church’s rapid deterioration. The 1897 St. Lawrence Wright Memorial Congregational Church had lain derelict for eight years, and the clock was ticking. It was increasingly clear that if someone didn’t step up to the plate, it would be too late.
Enter Deirdre Nice.
According to the story, she took me on a tour before we alit on our perch in the tower: The basement has two large, open rooms — a kitchen and a decrepit meeting room. The floor tiles are curled like pizza pepperoni, a result of leaking, flooding and the extreme temperature variations since the heating system was shut off some four or five years ago. Wading through muck and goo, Nice gestured to a dismal bathroom and grinned, “I think it’s already wheelchair accessible.” In the sanctuary, huge sections of wall and ceiling have fallen away, exposing the stone framework beneath. A wall clock dangles from a cord, stopped at three ’til eternity. The church is filled with the smell of rot and decay and neglect and the faint echo of the constant, cavelike dripping.
We stood for a moment amid the fallen plaster in the foyer, heady from the smell of must and mold, listening to the steady drip drip drip of the leaking roof. Nice’s eyes widened, “Isn’t this great?”
Her plan was to create some sort of community center, but the details were spotty. She talked about establishing a whole-foods restaurant in the basement. (A trendy restaurant succeeding on seedy Munjoy Hill? Yeah, right.) She envisioned live music, readings, performance, arts-oriented programs — all in a multigenerational atmosphere.
I took down her quotes with numb fingers in that belfry and thought to myself, You is crazy, lady.
Sometimes when I am standing alone in the basement dressing room of the St. Lawrence, waiting for my call to the stage, I try to picture Deirdre and I mucking around down there back then. What if I could’ve time-traveled to this moment? What if I told Deirdre Nice on that spring day in 1994: “Your dream is going to come true. The St. Lawrence will not just survive but will flourish. A non-profit corporation will be formed and the community will rally. It will, indeed, serve as a cultural anchor on the Hill. And while you won’t be able to save the sanctuary [it was deemed unsalvageable and razed, along with the bell tower, in 2008], a new 400-seat performance hall will replace it someday. And one day I will call you with a nutty idea about doing a one-woman show at your theater, even though I’ll have no idea what I am doing or getting myself into. You will welcome me and provide a home base for this inadvertent venture that will continue to generate sellout crowds and take on a life of its own. And I’ll even finish the book that started it all somewhere in the process.”
I bet she would’ve looked me in the eye and said, “Isn’t that great?”
My favorite part of the CBW interview (the title of which was softened to “Head in the Clouds”) was Deirdre’s closing remarks: “There’s the very real possibility that I could fail big with this church. Big. There’s definitely an element of foolishness about it, and we’re going to find out how serious it is. … You could go crazy with this building, there’s no doubt about it. But we’re not going to know that till we get there.”
Nice climbed the wall of her bell tower and surveyed her domain, hovering again 60 feet in the air, ready to take the plunge. Poised for success, prepared for failure. But doing it all the same.
Kind of like turning a heap of pages into a one-woman show. All you have to do is close your eyes and leap.
To further follow Elizabeth Peavey’s follies, go to elizabethpeavey.com.