Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Finding blame for my discomfort: a love story

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I went to a place I haven’t been in a while.

It’s place that’s hard to explain. It can make you feel good about your sorrow, a place that raises questions without necessarily answering them, that both humbles and emboldens you at the same time, and forces you to face things that often make you feel uncomfortable.

That place was the stage.

I performed in a staged reading of a play called “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” which was written by a theatre company as an epilogue to a play written ten years earlier, called “The Laramie Project.” I was involved in a production of that original play in 2001, while attending Bismarck State College.

What made this recent performance special was that most of the original cast members that performed the play at BSC in 2001 returned to perform this new play. Some of them are now working as professional actors and directors, living as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago, but made the time to come back and take part in the play.

The experience revived in me something I’d set aside years ago to pursue other avenues, which I noticed after performing the play, because I began having trouble staying focused once I returned to my normal schedule.

It was because of the stage. I had no idea that performing a play for the first time in four years would have the power to invade my sleep and interrogate my thoughts.

Theatre has been a part of my life since I was 8. I was never a social person at that age, but I gained confidence while learning to perform. I started during the Mandan Summer Theatre program, which took place in the late ’80s to mid-’90s. There I learned how to listen and react to people and start conversations with others, something I had little skill at.

The stage frightened me to death when I began. I was a quiet kid and didn’t like to talk, but was willing to face my fears and overcome that, primarily because my parents wanted me out of their house during the summer.

When I began, theatre’s purpose, in my eyes, was strictly for entertainment. I performed in shows for a long time before finally realizing that the stories told on the stage could influence others, or even provoke change.

Even after being a performer for over 20 years, the stage still scares me. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about theatre – studying playwriting throughout my five years of college, including performing – and the only fact I walked away with is that you can learn all you want, but those facts will only expose you to a lot more to learn.

Theatre affects me a manic-depressive way, and I blame it for manipulating the way I think and act. It has forced me to change my way of thinking, and pushed me away from what I was once comfortable with.

And I blame the stage for doing that to me. It gets to your heart; it calls out and asks if you’re ready to face an identity in yourself that lurks in life but rarely surfaces. It deceives without lying, it offers answers but leaves you confused. It teaches you to put justice to the hearts of others you may not otherwise want to understand.

It’s hard to figure out how I can love something that quenches my thirst but still leaves me thirsty. The spirit of theatre has always been beyond my comprehension, and that’s what continues to draw me to it, despite its influence. A stage is structurally shaped in a particular way for a reason – with its square stage, a square front border, a high loft and a curtain, it takes on the shape of a fireplace, so audiences are able experience the fire that drives what it means to be alive.

The stage has an ineffable ability to consume me, and it makes me feel like nothing else matters other than what is happening on the stage. And it often creates more questions rather than answers them. Yet it’s never afraid to ask. It challenges, questions, explores, teaches, entertains, angers, pries, mystifies, demands, provokes, reflects, reveals, and it’s not apologetic.

It also pulls me into experiences that can never be replicated. You go on a journey, you get angry, sad, you push and pry, stretch and struggle, fight your way toward some sort of peace or resolution.

And whether you get there or not, it’s the people you surround yourself with, who go on the same journey with you on the stage, who go through the same ordeals with you; you open up together, have revelations together, and that interaction often becomes what is most vital during the journey. And the friends I’ve made in theatre are some of the closest people I have in my life.

More times than not, the journey itself leaves you hungry for more to continue seeking and exploring, and that’s what has consumed me lately.

And since first stepping on that stage at the shy age of 8, that journey has dramatically altered the way that I think.

So for all of this, I blame the stage… and I thank it.

And I hope you have something in your life that does exactly the same thing to you.