I don't go to reunions. There's Facebook, right? And it's always an issue of money and time, or so I say.
The real reason I don't go to reunions - I'm not always comfy with my past self colliding with my present and potentially future selves. In other words, like most people, I have some regrets in life. Looking back, I tend to see mistakes I made, ways I spent and mismanaged my time, bad judgment in relationships, etc. Reunions - the thought of them anyway - remind me of all that. So, I avoid them. Don't get excited about them - kind of forget they happen.
But there was no avoiding this weekend - and I didn't want to. Whatever feelings I had about returning to Memphis, to Rhodes College, to McCoy Theatre, were disregarded the second Cookie Ewing announced her retirement. If there was any time to go back to college, it was now. It was for her.
So who is Cookie? Well, first of all, she's magic. She creates powerful "reasons to live" moments simply by being the most present and emotionally open being in the room. She is spellbinding. She listens with intent and purpose and when she speaks, no word is wasted. For four ridiculously privileged years, she was my professor. Then, after I got over being scared of her, she became my mentor. She continues to be my touchstone. Anyone who has worked with me in a creative capacity has been touched by Cookie. While I have a 10th of her passion, artistry, dedication and wisdom, her lessons - spoken and unspoken - have become an essential part of my craft. They dictate how I approach process, they govern my methods in every area of the art, they are the reason I insist on collaboration, communication and humility in the rehearsal room. If there is joy in my work, it is because she taught me to find it. Moreso, she taught that joy was essential to the work.
Second, and she would never say this but we all know it, she's an icon in Memphis theatre. She's an icon in Memphis period. She's had an impact on THOUSANDS of lives - a mere 300 of whom made their way to the McCoy Theatre Saturday night for a suprise party to celebrate her work, her spirit and the lessons she imparted.
She was supposed to arrive at 6:15, the party officially starting at 6PM. Under the guise of celebrating 35 years at the McCoy, alumni, friends and family descended upon campus for the night. By 6:30, the room was packed. By the time the show kicked off at 6:45, it was standing room only.
In rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, we were warned that Cookie posed a flight risk. While we know her heart is great, her capacity to love pushing earth's boundaries, she is also shy and private. She did not want or need this commotion. But selfishly, we had to give it to her. She could not leave without fully witnessing her remarkable accomplishments - all of us, whether theatre professionals, children's librarians, real estate photograhers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, bear her mark upon us. Gather us together in a room and the talent, potential, empathy, love and compassion is palpable. It makes your heart race. So yes, it made absolute sense that Cookie was assigned a seat at the back of the room - she'd have the best view in the house but could also make a run for it if it got too intense.
And it got intense. First there was a fake fight, then creative blending of all the shows Cookie directed and/or acted in during her tenure at Rhodes. After that, a movement piece calling out to Cookie's love of physical theatre and the means to use the body as a storytelling apparatus. Then singing original music from Hamlet, breathing and meditation soundscape and finally we were called to write in and read from our journals - a daily practice every one of Cookie's students were required to do.
I stood centerstage, read my lines without breaking - a miracle because what a view from my position, the room simply packed, overflowing - and then it happened. As all voices joined into the chorus of "Morning Glow" from Pippin (one of three musicals she directed and one of two times she directed her own mother), there was movement in the back. Cookie was up. Was she fleeing?? She moved to the left but quickly was blocked by banquet tables and chairs; she changed tactics and moved to the right. Then I realized, she's not fleeing. She's TRYING TO GET TO THE STAGE. The room stopped and started all at the same time. I leapt down to get her, fully aware this was a moment and I was living in it - this gesture was big. It was unscripted, organic, perfect and exactly what should have happened. She grabbed my hand, tight, as if to steady herself. Voices still rang out in song, guiding her to the stage. Dry eyes weren't optional. She made it, stood in the light and then grabbed us fiercely. Overwhelmed, emotional, beautiful.
But we weren't done!! There was still the matter of presenting Cookie with a bronzed robin's nest - one she and her students watched for a whole semester. From building to egg laying, to baby birds hatching to leaving the nest, they witnessed the whole cycle of nuture then flight.
Finally, as all of us who have worked with her know, Cookie frequently signed off, literally, in ASL - I love you, thank you. Before we really got the party started, we all signed it back to her. A wordless parting that somehow manages to encapsulate all that Cookie is and everything she means to us. It'll be a long time before I experience so much joy in one night. For that and for everything, thank you Cookie. I love you. Thank you.
Ugly cry face the second!!! But what a moment! #thankyoucookie
Part Two coming - We haven't even touched Memphis and the amazing afterparty!!