If you somehow managed to materialize in the auditorium of Jonathan Law High School in Milford CT this past weekend just as the band began the opening strains of Little Shop of Horrors, you would have simply thought yourself at a perfectly enjoyable production of that infectious musical, well-rendered by its teen cast. As the show progressed, however, you might have begun to notice something peculiar, a motif in the costumes, worn by every character: a purple ribbon, with a small circle affixed to it.
Of course, if you had seen the news in the prior week, if you drove into the high school lot, if you read the program, you would know that this was not your average high school production. One week earlier at the school, 16-year-old junior Maren Sanchez had been killed by another student, reportedly after she declined his invitation to the prom.
Maren was a vigorous participant in many school activities; the drama club was high among them. On Saturday afternoon, and presumably at the two other performances, the drama club’s faculty advisor and director of the production, Michael Mele, took to the stage pre-show to speak about Maren. He also explained that when the tragedy took place, he assumed the production wouldn’t happen, and that it was the other students who wanted to go forward, as a tribute to Maren. In the program he wrote, “We feel that by proceeding with the show we are doing what she would want us to, to get up there and do the best damn show this school has ever seen.”
Having never attended a show at Jonathan Law before, it’s impossible for me to say whether it met that standard. But I can say that it met an even higher one: that these young students performed together as very likely the bravest cast that I have ever seen.
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When we read about a tragedy like Maren’s death, and we read about them far too often, I suspect that most of us feel helpless. “I wish there was something I could do,” is a refrain I’ve heard, and thought myself. In the case of a natural disaster, some may go and donate blood, countless more make a financial contribution. If the tragedy literally hits closer to home, there may be more that can personally be done.
As I read various accounts of Maren’s death, I felt helpless once again, even though it did hit close to home: Milford is the town adjacent to Orange, where I grew up. As a teen, I spent a good bit of time in Milford, because that’s where the movie theatres were; even now when I take the train to see family and friends, I get on and off at the Milford station.
When I first read that Maren was an enthusiastic member of the drama club, I began to wonder whether there was in fact something I could do; when I learned she was to have been the person animating the ravenous plant Audrey II, I suspected I might be able to help. Imagining that if the show went forward they might need a puppeteer, I wrote to Mr. Mele (who I’ve never met before) and said that if they needed someone to come in and perform as Audrey II, I had connections to the puppetry community through my time at The O’Neill Theater Center, and I’d be honored to help. I wrote perhaps seven hours after Maren’s death.
On Sunday morning, a bit after 8 am, Mr. Mele returned my e-mail (apologizing for not responding sooner, if you can imagine). He wrote that the decision had been made to go forward with the show and that, yes, they could use help. I immediately sent messages to Stephanie D’Abruzzo of Avenue Q fame; to Pam Arciero, who runs the O’Neill’s Puppetry Conference; and to Martin P. Robinson, who designed and performed Audrey II in the original production and the Broadway revival. They are all Sesame Street veterans as well. Stephanie called within 20 minutes and as I reached for the phone, an e-mail popped in from Pam. This is all before 9 am on a Sunday morning.
By Monday, they had roped in Bart Roccoberton, head of the Puppetry Arts program at the University of Connecticut; by the end of the day, Bart had cleared the decks for a UConn student, Austin Costello, who had performed Audrey II before, to complete his academic work and be in Milford from Tuesday through the final show on Saturday. Austin carried the heaviest load, my puppetry friends had made the right calls, all I did was set things in motion. Inexplicably, they thanked me for doing so.
When I met Austin for the first time following Saturday’s matinee, I explained the chain of events that had brought him to the high school. My instinct was that if the show was to go on, it would have been very difficult for another student to take their friend’s role so soon, and to bring in a student from another high school would have been challenging in its own way. With someone who knew the show, who could focus on the work so that the drama club could focus on both performing and, if at all possible, to begin healing, one small part of the production might be less laden with sorrow. In our brief meeting, I sense that Austin was a perfect choice, warm and good-natured, utterly professional, pleased to have been able to help. Not to detract from the bravery of the students and their advisors, but Austin, especially due to his modesty, was an unsung hero this past weekend.
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I mentioned that the cast all wore purple ribbons; at intermission I saw audience members wearing them as well. The small circle, it turns out, was Maren’s photo. With this small gesture, she was on stage with her castmates throughout the performance. Purple was her favorite color, as I had read in news reports; many members of the audience were wearing purple shirts, and even the crew wore purple show t-shirts, presumably not a coincidence. The memorial at street side, with balloons, lit candles and stuffed animals, was dominated by purple; trees along the town’s green carried purple ribbons as well.
As I said, the performance went without a hint of the tragedy that pervaded it, save for the ribbons. The only glitches were those that could happen to any show; one zipper got stuck mid-scene, to the frustration of the young performer, but he powered through like a pro. The only overt acknowledgment of Maren came at the very end.
The cast came out for its curtain call as so many casts do: ensemble, supporting players, leading actors taking bows in succession. Then a company bow, a gesture to the band, to the back of the house where light and sound were being run and where Mr. Mele sat, an acknowledgment of the audience. They joined hands and bowed once again. Then they did something extraordinary that I shall never forget.
The company separated at the middle, each half moving a few steps toward the stage left and stage right wings, leaving an empty space center stage. As they moved their upstage arms towards the gap, which was filled by a purple circle of light, the final strains of The Beatles’ “In My Life” came over the sound system. And then the lights went out. They gave Maren the final bow.
* * *
Sadly, I have no doubt that other high school shows are touched by tragedy every year; the passing of family members, even the untimely passing of a cast member or fellow student. I hope that few experience the wrenching, inexplicable loss that happened at Jonathan Law.
I write not to record my own tiny role, but to recognize everyone who came together to put on Little Shop of Horrors, which included students from Sacred Heart, West Haven, Westbrook, Trumbull and Amity High Schools, the last being my alma mater. No doubt there were members of the media there at one of the evening performances, since they had certainly followed the events of the past week; I saw none on Saturday afternoon. I wish I could say that the show had sold to the rafters, but the houses were not all full. Despite the press attention every aspect of Maren’s death had received, it did not generate ticket sales, and I think I understand why: in some ways, as an outsider, I felt like I was intruding on something special and private. I went because I had caused someone else to do great service to the show, but I went with mixed emotions. I suspect others felt similarly about buying a ticket. Sadness and loss do not drive people to the theatre, I fear.
So I finish with two thoughts in this fragmentary account.
The first, to audiences everywhere, with no chastisement to my southern Connecticut neighbors intended: when a show proceeds in the wake of tragedy, I hope you will flock to it. Performers who undertake a tribute through the stage want you to join with them, as they commingle the exuberance of a production with their private tears of loss. Live performance requires us to come together always, and there is never a greater time to come together than to celebrate a life even indirectly, as with Little Shop – even of someone we never knew – and to comfort, support, appreciate and applaud those who would celebrate it in whatever manner they choose, should they choose to invite us in.
More importantly, I say to everyone who had a hand in Little Shop of Horrors this weekend: you honored your friend and I was honored to bear witness to that. It makes me deeply sad that you had to perform such a rite so early in your young lives, but please know that I saw much more than one of my favorite musicals, and that with your loving tribute, you helped to insure that Maren is, to paraphrase the show, somewhere that’s purple.