Shannon is a senior at James Madison High School, a friend of my little sister’s, and also has participated in the drama department there since freshman year. She was able to relay to me the legend of the Old Man, which my sister described as an inherent part to the pre-show rituals.
A long long time ago there was a little fishing village by the sea. It was a beautiful little village. They didn’t have very many belongings, but they had loving families and food to eat and that was enough. While the Mothers and Fathers worked on their boats and in the fields and around their little homes, all the children went to school. All the children went to see the wisest old man of the village. The children loved the Old Man. He taught them everything. They learned about the bugs and the birds and the sun and the moon and stars, the trees and the rain and the sea. He taught them how to make a fire and tie their knots and how to fish and he taught them how to love. He taught them about how to love and respect each other, and he taught them how to respect themselves. And all the children loved and respected and trusted the old man. One day, the wise old man gathered the children very early in the morning, and they set out into the forest. They hiked for miles. Finally, just before sunrise, they reached the high cliffs that overlooked the little village and the very big ocean. “Come closer” the old man said, as he stood at the edge of the cliff. “We’re scared” the children said. The Old Man insisted “Come here! Come closer, look out over the edge!” The children shuffled closer to the edge and peered down the cliff. Their fishing village looked so small from up there, and the ocean looked so big, crashing against the giant cliffs with each wave. Eyes wide, the children held each other, scared. “Alright” the old man said. “Now jump.” The children said “What? what do you mean, jump! We CAN’T jump, we’ll die!!!” The old man slowly shook his head. “No” he said. “If you jump…you will fly.” The children looked at each other, trembling, holding each other. “Trust me.” The old man said. And since the children loved him, they trusted him. So they jumped…and they flew. —Fly tonight
While this story is only a fragment, it serves an important part of the Madison Drama department’s overall pre-show ritual. Shannon made no claim to any explicit symbolism in the story, but the analogies are apparent. The Old Man represents the department’s drama teacher Mr. Henderson who is, in fact, an old man who has taught at the school for years. Jumping off the cliff represents the major transition from rehearsal to the first performance: while the drama teacher has taught them everything he knows and has done his best to prepare them for the performance, once the curtain rolls back on opening night the kids have to trust each other and ‘jump’ free from his guidance. The story is told before opening night in order to quell pre-show jitters by inspiring confidence in each other and all the hard work that they have put into the performance.
After relaying the legend, Shannon told me a little about its evolution within the drama department, which was perhaps even more folkloric than the story itself. She said, “It’s supposed to be orally passed down, but in the four years that I’ve been here it kept changing, getting worse. We only tell it twice a year and not all of the kids participate every time. So I wrote it down. So that it’d be told the right way.”
While the original intent of the story was to pass this legend down through oral tradition in order to create a sense of unity within the drama department by only sharing it with those involved, the modern mindset of one ‘true’ author creating one ‘true’ story had Shannon believing that the inevitable variations that arose from the oral passage were a ‘false’ version. I thought it was funny that she described these variations of the ‘true’ story as making it “worse” and that putting the story down on paper, to her, would solve the issue. This, in general, is reflective of the mindset of the modern era, one that has been changing as we move further and further into the Digital Age.