This is a story about a mushroom. However, in order for me to tell you that story, I must first tell you another one; a story about a question.
The very first musical that my boss directed in our hometown was also the very first musical that I was ever in, outside of church pageants and school chorus concerts. I vividly remember swinging on the play set in our backyard one day after school and seeing my mom open the sliding glass door onto our back porch. When she opened the door she also opened her mouth and asked me one question: “Would you like to audition for a play?”
To say that this question changed my life is the understatement of the century. In reality, that question affected many lives more than anyone can possibly fathom. Because of that question, that invitation to do something new and exciting, my world was transformed! Because of that question, an infinite realm of possibilities was opened to me, and my life slowly began to take shape. Because of that question, I met my future best friends, my future co-workers, and my maid of honor, not to mention my future mentor and partner in theatre crime. Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic, but that’s always been my way, which is yet another reason why that question “would you like to audition for a play?” was so impactful for me.
There are only two more things about this question that you need to know before I continue with my story. The first is that after answering “yes,” we went to the theatre (which was really a room that was being rented out by the local police precinct, but that is a third and fourth story altogether), filled out some forms, and whammo! I was in a musical. The second is that the name of that musical was Peter Pan, and as everyone knows, Peter Pan takes place in Never Never Land, where the Lost Boys have an underground hideaway that has an entrance disguised as a tree trunk and a chimney disguised as a mushroom.
This is a story about a mushroom.
The mushroom that was used in that production of Peter Pan was custom-built out of an old sonotube, vinyl, and some stuffing. In my memory, it was painted yellow with purple polka dots and a brown stump, but I’ve seen it painted in so many different ways over the years (dare I say decades?) that I am likely wrong about this. In Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Smee stop to rest on this oversized toadstool in the forests of Never Never Land, only to have their britches catch on fire in an overplayed bit of physical comedy. When they see the smoke coming from the bottom of the mushroom, they realize that it is, in fact, the hiding place of Peter Pan! The plot thickens.
After this one scene, the mushroom is no longer relevant to the story, and it spends the rest of the play off stage. But as we all know, children’s fairy tales almost always include enchanted forests, which almost always call for a magical mushroom. The mushroom might be a bed for Thumbelina, a hiding place for Snow White, or even a snack for a famished hunter. In any case, once our giant, polka-dotted mushroom was finished with its run in Peter Pan, it had many other roles to play in many other stories, building itself quite an extensive performance resume.
Over the years, the mushroom became somewhat of a local celebrity. Those of us in the theatre community would always look for it, wondering how it would be recycled next. If a character ran into the woods, chances were he would find himself tripping over this now-famous fungus. In time, it became a challenge to see how our director would incorporate it into each show. Sometimes it would be covered with a cloth and serve as an ottoman in someone’s living room, or sometimes it would be bedazzled and used as a footstool for trying on glass slippers. Sometimes it was just on stage for no reason at all other than to continue the tradition. “Cue the mushroom!” became the popular command backstage, where no one wanted to be responsible for forgetting to include it in the night’s performance. From Peter Pan to Winnie the Pooh to Big River, I don’t think that little fungi ever missed an entrance.
In a story that is not quite mine to tell, my boss decided to leave that theatre program and begin a new community theatre of her own that would be dedicated solely to children’s plays. After ten years of working for the same company, she had to leave behind all of the costumes, scenery and props that the program had accrued throughout its years under her direction. She said goodbye to her beloved toadstool, and, with me again at her side, we started the children’s theatre that now keeps us (and countless others) busy morning, noon, and night.
During one of our first productions as a new company, we asked to borrow the original mushroom, but were told that it had been thrown away in a recent purging of the theatre’s storage unit. After a suitable period of mourning, I asked a crew member to make me a similar mushroom, but it just wasn’t the same. The mushroom of legend, it seemed, it had taken its last bow.
I would now like you to fast forward with me through eight years of wild, zany, children’s theatre shenanigans, and through countless enchanted forest scenes featuring logs, tree stumps, and giant flowers, but no mushrooms. It is a Monday afternoon, and I am teaching a tap class in our dance studio while my boss is running down the hallway, panting “my mushroom is back, my mushroom is back!” and grinning from ear to ear.
I followed her down the hall and into our lobby, to see the mushroom sitting there in all its glory! The cushion is now tan with multiple colors of stripes and spots, but if I squint I swear I can still see the original purple polka dots peering through the 19 years of paint!
It turns out that, eight years ago, a young couple expecting their first child bought this strangely wonderful, oversized mushroom ottoman from a thrift store. They kept it in their little girl’s fairy-themed nursery until this month when, in a fit of redecorating, they decided to throw it out. But on their way to the dump, the mother asked herself a question: “Couldn’t that children’s theatre down the street use an adorable fairy toadstool in a play?”
And that question, while it didn’t change any lives, certainly changed an ordinary afternoon at work into an extraordinary trip down memory lane.