Potentially sensitive content: The word "rape" is used as a reference to a movie plot, but there is no sexual violence or threat of it in this story.
Woodminster Amphitheater, eighty years old, sat empty and silent on the hill. The massive concrete structure, built by Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, retained some of its original grandeur, but it looked worn, and in the winter, with no performances or events scheduled for months, it was deserted.
Eli stood in the empty parking lot below the amphitheater and looked at the stage door. She knew it would be locked, but she walked over and tried it anyway. How many times had she passed through that door? Wishing she could look inside, she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the hubbub of the crowd after a performance, the audience pouring out of the theater in high spirits, calling good nights to each other, cars starting and driving away. But now, it was very quiet.
Eli hadn’t intended to come here. It hadn’t occurred to her at all until the conversation at the care facility that morning. She was in town to visit her mother, Helen, who was gently sliding into dementia. Eli adored her mother, but her career kept her in Los Angeles or far-flung locations around the country, so all she could do was visit whenever she was between projects, knowing each time that it might be too late to recognize and be recognized.
Thankfully, so far, Helen still knew who Eli was and was always thrilled to see her without any apparent memory of the time that had passed since the last visit. She had moved into the “memory care” wing several months ago. Every visit since then, she had proudly shown Eli her “new digs,” as she called her room, without realizing that Eli had been there before, that in fact she had personally arranged the furniture and hung the pictures on the walls. But her mother took such pleasure in showing off her new apartment, Eli didn’t see any reason to correct her.
She would be in Oakland for six days this time, and was visiting her mom every day, in the mornings when Helen’s mind was usually the clearest. Today, her second day, they’d had one of those lucid conversations that sometimes happen with dementia patients, when for a few minutes, all the clouds blow away and they are exactly as they used to be before the cruel disease took their essence away.
They had been reminiscing, looking at old photos and laughing at old stories. Eli always tried to steer the conversation toward the past. Current events distressed Helen, and news of Eli’s work was often confusing for her, who still thought of her daughter as an actress, which she hadn’t been for years. Helen had seen the first film Eli had directed, and had been congratulatory, but had obviously found it disturbing. She hadn’t seen any of her daughter’s work since, and Eli hadn’t encouraged her to.
But Helen loved to talk about their shared past, and today they were looking at an old scrapbook. She had slipped some photos out of an envelope tucked between pages, and suddenly looked at Eli with utter clarity, smiling in the old way, though a tear trembled at the corner of her eye. “Look at this, sweetheart. You were so talented. Look how happy you were.”
And Eli was looking at two pictures of her much younger self. One was obviously a publicity shot of a pretty teenaged girl in an exaggerated dance pose, wearing tap shoes and a bow on her curly head, surrounded by three boys, all four smiling broadly. The other was the same girl, same age, possibly the same show, posed in front of the stage door at Woodminster, holding a bouquet of roses. And just like that, she was back at Woodminster Amphitheater, singing and dancing in summer musicals, her heart full of joy and optimism about the future. But it was just a momentary feeling, and as it dissipated, she realized that she could barely remember what it felt like to be that girl who lived for the theater, whose life was consumed by dancing lessons and singing lessons and auditions and performances.
She hadn’t thought about those happy summer days in a long time. She’d graduated from acting college with Broadway dreams, but started booking commercials instead, and moved to Los Angeles. She’d gotten her first directing gig through a fluke, and quickly developed a reputation for eliciting stunning performances from young female actors playing victims. In her world of serious issue-driven filmmaking, live theater, especially musical theater, was considered a little plebeian.
But that fleeting feeling, that echo of the joy she used to feel, shook her. So after she left her mother, heading back to her hotel for lunch and a gym workout, she abruptly changed course, left 580 for Highway 13, and took the old familiar exit. Driving up the hill was almost a dream, like driving into the past. It seemed very familiar, but subtly different in ways she couldn’t quite place. Without hesitation, she’d turned into Joaquin Miller Park and taken the road down to the amphitheater and around to the stage door, which she’d found locked.
Now, still hoping to get inside the walls around the outdoor amphitheater, she walked up the wooded path to the front entrance. The “main gate,” welcomingly open on performance nights, was now blocked by a tall chain link fence. But as she approached, she noticed the padlock was unlocked and dangling. She felt a little thrill as she opened the gate enough to slip through and put the padlock back as it had been.
She stood still, looking around her. On show nights, this area would be bustling, patrons lined up to buy popcorn, souvenir baseball caps, raffle tickets. She remembered the excited families with picnic baskets, the couples on dates, the “Red Hat Ladies” in their signature garb, and all the rest of them. Funny how real and human they had seemed to her then. She had since come to think of her viewers as audience profiles and dollar signs, not actual human beings who were there for the way the show made them feel.
Today, the area beyond the gate felt bereft. The shuttered sales booths were shabby, the paving had buckled, there were tree branches scattered about, an overturned trash can. But as she kept moving toward the performance space, her breath caught. The stage below was covered with plywood, as it always was in the winter. In the spring, someone would lift the plywood and lay down the floor that would serve for performances all summer long. But even covered, the stage felt dynamic to her. The rest of the structure was dormant, but this, the beating heart of the theater, was alive, waiting expectantly until it was time to unleash its magic.
She gazed down at the stage, a lump in her throat. She’d first auditioned there when she was nine years old, and had spent parts of every summer there for over a decade. She had rehearsed there, performed there, waited there, eaten there, hung out there. Even after she was fully an adult and a card-carrying professional actor, she’d been offered an occasional contract, and she’d loved to “come home,” as she thought of it. It had been a very long time since she had experienced the sheer exuberance of doing a stage play and feeling her heart swell with the pure love of performing live. But she felt something stirring in her, perhaps a memory of that emotion, a remembrance of how her professional life had begun.
Slowly, she walked along the back of the theater, behind the rows of seats, to where a familiar set of stairs led to a walkway at the very top of the amphitheater. She reached the apex and stood looking out over Oakland, where she’d been born and raised.
She hadn’t set out to be a director. She’d been booking some acting work but not finding it very satisfying, when a friend from acting class had asked her if she were interested in directing an indy film about a high school student who’d been raped by her teacher. The first director had dropped out and they were ready to shoot. Being at loose ends, she’d said yes. She’d found she liked directing, and much to her surprise, this small film had a lot of success in film festivals and generated more buzz than anyone expected. Next had come a bigger film about a social worker who was raped by her client. Suddenly Eli had found herself getting a lot of attention as an up-and-coming female director who portrayed trauma with exquisite realism, and she’d directed three more films where the protagonist had been raped or threatened with rape. This last one had been nominated for an Academy Award, which had equally shocked her and thrilled her.
But now, all she knew was that she profoundly didn’t want to direct another film about rape.
Maybe she should make a movie here in Oakland. She had known this city well, nowhere better than this very spot, this venerable theater. It was a vibrant and unique town, full of stories waiting to be told. And she also realized she might have more choices in her future projects if she won that Oscar next month, though just the nomination had already opened up new projects to her. For the first time, she felt a little bit of excitement, instead of just terror, at the prospect of going to the Academy Awards. As she gazed out at the view, she allowed herself to bask in the idea of making a film in her home town, something about hope.
When she first heard the music, for a moment she wondered if she had imagined it. A show tune, but what? It sounded familiar but it had been so long. When the baritone voice started singing, she realized what it was. Oklahoma. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” She quietly walked back around the walkway through the picnic tables to where she could see the stage. A man sat on a chair playing a guitar, singing softly to himself in the huge empty theater. Something about the stillness of the place, and the lovely melody, made her feel like it was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. She stood above him, listening. When he finished, he hit a few chords, and started singing. “Who will buy this wonderful morning?”
She remembered this one well. She’d done Oliver twice here, once as the youngest pickpocket, and again later, on a professional contract as Nancy. Feeling a little wave of nostalgia for the act of singing itself, she involuntarily started to hum along, and slowly descended the stage left staircase until she was on the stage with him. He sang three choruses, and by the third one, she was singing full-out. Hearing her, he verged off into harmony and they finished the last “There must be someone who will buy” as a duet. She involuntarily let out a little laugh of delight as the man turned around to face her.
“Where did you come from?” he asked, smiling.
“I’m sorry, the gate was unlocked, I just wanted to see the place, I hope it’s okay.”
“I guess I left it unlocked when I went out to get my guitar out of the car. I was up here checking some things and it’s such a beautiful day, I was inspired to make some music.”
“Well you made my day. Thank you for the songs. Do you work here?”
“Yes, I do. Music Director for the summer musicals. Cal Brown.” He held out his hand, and she shook it.
“I used to be in the musicals. Years ago,” said Eli.
He smiled and cocked his head. “Let’s see, remind me. What’s the last thing you did here?”
“I guess that would be Sweet Charity. That would have been…”
“Of course! You just look so different now. I remember you very well. You were a fixture here. Sweet Charity, you were already a pro. And Oliver, the summer before, same thing. But before that… Adelaide?” She nodded. “And Zaneeta, right? Lots of shows. You were one of the kids who was always here. I was older than you, but me too.”
“I think I remember you, too, actually. The first thing I ever did here was Joseph.” She hadn’t thought about that show in decades, but suddenly the whole experience came back in vivid detail. She had been one of dozens in the children’s choir, all dressed alike and coached to walk quickly, sit quickly, and sing like angels. “I think you were one of the brothers, am I right?”
“And you’re still here?” He laughed so heartily that she had to join in. “I didn’t mean it like that… I remember because I was the littlest kid and you were nice to me. And I think we did lots of other shows together after that, didn’t we? By the way, I’m —”
But he held out his hand to stop her. “Wait, let me try to remember.” He squinted. Suddenly his face broke into a broad grin as he pointed a finger at her. “Elizabeth, right? Miller, Mason, Marshall…”
“You got it. Marshall. Amazing that you could remember after all this time.”
“Well, you could do it all. You were a real triple threat. We just knew you’d go on to a big Broadway career. I hope you did!”
“Not so much. I did some professional acting for awhile, but it’s been years.”
“Aha. In a way I’m sorry to hear that because you were just so great. I hope you’re still working in the theater in some way.”
“Well, actually I’m a director. But not live theater, I’m a film director.”
Suddenly his eyes got wide and he slapped his face. “Eli Marshall, you’re Eli Marshall, right?”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Well, sure. I was reading an article the other day about important female directors and they profiled you. I noticed your name because it said you were from Oakland. I just didn’t make the connection, you look so different, your hair. I mean you look great but really different from the old days. It said you might win an Oscar, right?”
She knew the article he was talking about. “The Oakland part is accurate.” They both laughed.
“I haven’t seen your films, sorry to say. I will now, though.”
Eli turned and looked out at the amphitheater. “So the summer musicals are still going strong?”
“They’re still going. It’s hard, the facility itself has been disintegrating for decades and there’s not much that can be done without a lot of cash. But people keep auditioning, and we keep doing shows. The pandemic hurt us, and we don’t have the big audiences we used to have, but enough people still buy tickets to keep us alive. So far.”
They both looked out at the rows and rows and rows of empty seats. Some looked cracked. Even from the stage, Eli could see that a lot of the wood beneath the seats was splintered and gray. A bannister on one of the staircases was leaning.
“I loved this place,” Eli said. “I can’t believe it’s been so many years. Now that I’m here, I remember it all. The way the cast felt like family, and the audience too in a way, the joy of being onstage. It’s so profound and simple, you sing, they applaud, it’s just a very happy experience. Now I’ve got a great career but I forgot why I started it all. I forgot the joy.”
He smiled. “Well, then don’t be a stranger. Come see us often.”
Eli took a deep breath, exhaled, and looked around her with pleasure. She knew with absolute certainty what she was going to do. Her movie would be set in Oakland. The lovely old amphitheater would play a leading role, and live theater would be the metaphor for hope and renewal. The story itself was already forming itself in her head. She could also imagine how the infusion of film money could help reverse the deterioration of the elderly amphitheater.
And if she could make a very, very good movie, a lot of people would see it and want to visit the amphitheater and see a show, and the seats would fill again for the summer shows. She was glowing with inspiration.
“Yes,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of me.”