Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our Real-Life Actual Fairy Godmother

By the time we moved to town, Pat Briggs had been running the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre for 45 years. Our son Nicholas was bitten by the theater bug when he was four. He was ten when we arrived at our new California home. He’d been in a summer theatre workshop the year before, and when we bought our house, the fact that the storied Palo Alto Children’s Theater was just down the street was a big selling point.

Pat Briggs at her retirement tribute.
Nick tried out for a play not two months after we arrived. Hundreds of kids were at the auditions for “Alice in Wonderland.” Pat and her Assistant Director, Micheal Litfin, a man of comparatively short tenure, only 25 years, ran the auditions the way Mussolini would have if he had been both autocratic and loved children. Pat held court, clipboard in her lap, from a seat in a middle row of the theatre, while Michael, dressed as he almost always was in a yellow cardigan sweater, ran the Dickensian horde through their paces. All children, ages 8-18. No adults allowed in Pat’s and Michael’s productions.

Gulp! This was the big time.

“Remember, there will be other plays if you don’t make this one,” we told Nick.

Mirable dictu, he got a part. He was the King of Hearts. Don’t remember that role? It was big, I assure you. Huge! He snagged it by improvising his now legendary stutter-step as he moved about the stage trying to keep his head.

So began a fabulous five years. Nick was in play after play. Little roles, big roles. Pat and Michael spread the wealth. The kids did it all. Acted, designed and built sets, handled tech. In addition to Pat and Michael there was tech guy to make sure no one cut off a finger sawing a prop, a costume virtuoso, a ticket seller jack-of-all-trades, and hundreds of parent volunteers selling brownies at intermissions and manning the barbecue grill for summer hot-dog theatre shows on the outdoor stage of the Magic Castle, which had been built through the efforts of the Friends of the Children's Theatre, a kind of private fundraising militia that Pat controlled in her casually tyrannical way.

The theatre was built with money from a contribution in 1932 by Lucie Stern. The city paid most of the operating bills of the theatre. Money raised by the Friends let Pat do things like improve the sound system when the city said it could not afford to do more. My wife and I were part of the Friends posse. Everyone was. Pat never said it would be a good idea, if you wanted to see your child in a show, but it seemed like a good idea.

We had a lot of fun. We went to a lot of shows. We waited up late for Nick to get home from rehearsals a lot of nights. We worried about when he would do his homework from school. But there was never any doubt that he was having the time of his life. He did plays, he did “Second-Saturday” shows, entirely directed by him and his fellow players for young children, he interviewed survivors of Nazi Germany for an original play to be written by him and his friends with the guidance of Michael Litfin, who himself had written dozens of the plays produced at the theatre.

It was an unbelievably rich time: rich in creativity, talent, comradeship, empathy and the joy of starting from nothing and putting on a dazzling show.

Just as Nick was making a transition from semi-full-time actor to semi-full-time robotics team programmer, Pat retired after 50 years and Michael died suddenly. He was only 62. One of the last things he said, speaking of his life, was: “It was a great run.”

No one could have said it better.

Pat is not well now. She has moved to Chicago, where one of her nieces lives. I just went by her California house, which is near mine, in the hope of catching her other niece from Colorado, who is in town to help deal with Pat’s accumulations of a lifetime. Like any theatre person worth her salt, Pat was a bit of a hoarder. You never knew when you might need those Valkyrie wings for another production. There are scripts and scrapbooks and memorabilia, awards by the dozen. It’s easy to see in the clutter the benevolent and indulgent temperament that made her so patient and effective with children, that enabled her to guide them in a way that ultimately let them guide themselves.

I did meet her niece, a lovely woman. I told her who I was and asked for Pat’s address so I could write to her in Chicago. I told her that Pat had touched countless lives, including those of our family. I told her we would never forget her.

All writers hope that their words will endure beyond their pitifully short time on this earth. A book can be taken off the shelf and enjoyed decades or centuries later. It’s a form of immortality.

Pat Briggs has left her theatre family, the children and families of fifty years of plays, a dozen a year, year after year, her own special kind of immortality. She will live on in thousands of young hearts as long as memories are revisited around dinner tables and in quiet moments of reflection about what she and Michael taught us about stories, and about ourselves.

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