Maps and directions come as easily understood for me as putting one foot in front of the other. I am able to go somewhere once and basically never forget how to get there ever again. I can read a map and know exactly how to get somewhere typically without issue. So why the heck it’s taking me the better part of this morning to find Teatro Nacional is as easily misunderstood for me as if I had forgotten how to put on a pair of pants. It’s not as though wandering around Casco Viejo has me angry with steam coming out of my ears, stomping and cursing. This is such a charming area of Panama City and after spending copious time in places lacking hip cafes and restaurants, I’m in my own little slice of foodie heaven at the moment. But I do want to find this theater.
After some trial and error, I finally stumble upon it. El Teatro Nacional was completed in 1908 and has undergone two restorations in the past forty years. The exterior is nothing overly grand, simply painted with soft hues of salmon pink, orange and yellow. The interior though, is ornate and dramatic, such as a theater built in that era would be, I suppose. I walk up the marble staircase to the second floor and take a seat in a balcony alone. The theater is small, it seats 800. There is gold decal of cherubs and harps along the outside of each balcony. The ceiling has a painted angelic scene mostly in hues of blues and reds. A crystal chandelier hangs from the middle and I wonder if the theater had electricity when it first opened or if perhaps, a chandelier of candles stood in this one’s place.
I have always loved the feeling of a theater, the comfort it lends like a warm hand on the small of your back. The narrow, soft lit hallways leading to individual balconies, the hush right before the curtain opens, the way you are just a little bit altered after witnessing an amazing performance on stage. An audience becoming one in the darkness with rapt attention for the actors on stage.
There’s a ballet rehearsal happening at the moment with people of varying ages. The dancers range from incredible to mediocre and you can’t help but smile at the little three and four year olds all completely out of sync with each other. One little girl is not doing anything apart from standing on the stage and once in awhile moving her arms to and fro. The older dancers though, the really good ones, I’m so impressed with how lithe they are, the way their bodies bend as effortlessly as savannah grass on a windy day.
Without any forewarning my throat tightens up and tears well in my eyes. “Oh my gosh,” I think, “Where is this coming from?” It’s not so much that I am moved by this rehearsal as I think it’s perhaps that I haven’t been to a theater performance in far too long. And I LOVE the theater. My parents took me and my sister to many plays and musicals when we were kids. In college, my close friends were thespians. For as long as I can remember I have been a participant in theater, never on stage but always in the audience and constantly captivated by it. Plays, musicals, dance shows, improv, circus groups, they have all had some influence on who I am and how I view life.
In this theater at this moment, something is stirring within me, an animal rising from its deep, underground lair. I sit in the dark and cry as ballerinas flit around the stage. Self-consciously I wonder if the guy in the next balcony over thinks I a total sap. Who cries in the audience during a dance rehearsal? This girl, right here.
The theater is a sacred space, though, at least I believe it to be so. It’s a place that allows you to leave where you are and be transported to another space entirely. I suppose it has something to do with sitting in the dark quietly and your only responsibility is to observe. An act I try to do more of- observing and listening rather than interjecting and speaking.
I know I’m crying because of what this ornate theater represents in this very moment for me. It’s finally hitting me, the first act of this incredible journey that I have made with my life is coming to a close. I am taking a bow from Central America as I back up and the heavy red velvet curtains close. Just as an actor who feels immense success after a show but never feels wholly satisfied, I know I have come so far with my own personal triumphs the past year but I am nowhere near done. The intermission is Rochester and it will be no less significant. I’m not sure where the second act will lead me, at least I know it will be within Latin America again.
After more than an hour, I walk back out into the stifling heat and stunning day light of Panama City. Returning home can often be as jarring as leaving a dark theater and entering a sunny day. Often little has changed except for you. I’m excited though, as if I were an actress and returning home is my grand debut.