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Finding Myself in The Secret Garden

I had the extraordinary opportunity to direct The Secret Garden for the Pentacle Theatre, a local community theater in Salem.

At first I wasn't sure about it.  It’s a big show.  It has very difficult music.  It’s not a well known musical.  However, I decided to attempt the show anyway with the encouragement of my friend Jeff and one beautiful dream.

I read the book, The Secret Garden, as a child.  As I reviewed it I was surprised to rediscover a story of death, abandonment, fear, and neglect housed within the pretenses of a flowery tale of a precocious girl and a garden. The novel was unexpectedly truthful -- probably one of the reasons so many of us were intrigued by the story as children. Burnett respected young people and had faith in everyone’s abilities to face the darkness of the world and emerge with the light.

I love this soaring musical version of The Secret Garden, which begins with a mood of secrets, solitude and sadness and yet, ends with joy and redemption.  It’s a tribute to the human spirit; a tale of loss and rejuvenation; a feast for the eyes, the ears, and most importantly, the heart. As I've read through the script of The Secret Garden, I couldn't help but be aware of the themes of human companionship, friendship, determination, and love.  The main theme is that no matter how dead someone or something seems on the outside, there is always a spark of life left in them. If this spark of life is allowed time to grow and is nourished with love, it will come back to life and happiness, and will have a second chance to live up to its potential of having a full and complete life.

The human heart is a powerful force in this story. It has the capacity to cause the most exquisite pain, a miraculous ability to heal, and the precious gift of feeling love.  Most importantly, I love the theme of healing and personal change.

The story centers in a garden, a central symbol of personal devastation (as in Lily’s death and Archibald’s mourning), self discovery (as with Mary’s self discovery and change of heart) and renewal (as with Colin’s recovery and a family coming together).  The story follows Mary’s transformation as she befriends others, especially Martha and  Dickon. They becomes her gateway to a mighty change of heart. Through their budding friendship Mary begins to thaw and grow, like the earth around her. She then in turn affects others for the better.

I love how this theme is illustrated in a couple of ways in this play. One very obvious example is the way that the garden came back to life after years of neglect once it was found and cared for again. Another illustration of this theme is in the way that Colin, Mary, and Uncle Archibald each flourish and gain strength after they find friends and are given something for which to live.

One such example is the character of Colin who is sickly and has been hidden away from the world’s view until Mary accidentally discovers him one night. He, like the garden, has essentially been un-cared for except for the basics of food, water, and medicine. His existence is severely lacking in love, affection, and any kind of creative outlet. Once Mary enters his life, she tends to Colin like she does the garden, applying everything she learns, hoping to transform him into a happy, healthy, and curious child.

Mary, as the central character, is the one that grows the most. When she comes to Misselthwaite Manor she is an emotionless, sallow little girl. As the play progresses, Mary’s cold heart and hard shell begin to crack, and she starts to grow warm. Mary shows the most growth as she learns to care for the garden and for Colin. She learns that it is okay to hope and to love another person.

Supporting this main theme is the idea that everyone carries within themselves their own special magic. They can use that magic to care for and love other people and things, resulting in healing for themselves and others.

An additional theme is the concept of forgiveness and second chances. No matter what happens in life, there is always an opportunity for a second chance. If people can forgive themselves and let go of guilt and regret for events of the past, they can embrace the second chances they are given, and they can move on with their life and be happy. We see this theme personified in Archibald Craven. The most difficult character to gauge is Archibald Craven. His healing has been excruciatingly slow.  He, perhaps out of all the characters, needs the deepest emotional healing.  Once he was willing to let go of the pain and regret that he felt over his wife’s death, he was able to move forward in life with his son, Colin, and niece, Mary, and find happiness once again.

One of the principal themes driving this story of growth and life is, ironically, death. In our world, life and death are paired. You cannot have one without the other. Mary loses all the people that she knows within the first few minutes of the play. Archibald Craven has lost Lily to death and longs for death himself. Colin has lived in death’s shadow every day of his life, knowing nothing else. Many people who have lost someone to death ask, “Is this all? Is there any life after death?” The Dreamers in this story are an attempt to answer these questions.

The Dreamers represent both life and death at the same time. They are a
reminder of everything that each of the characters has lost due to the death of
others. Yet, while symbolizing death, they provide hope and help to those they
cared for in life. Even though the Dreamers are in a world apart from ours, they
have the power to influence the real world. They still care and they are still close
by. The Dreamers help keep the hearts of each of the characters alive, even
though the spark of life may be very small. They are happiness and sorrow,
despair and hope all at the same time. They use their magic to make the spark
of life grow in the hearts of the people in the real world. In many ways they are
the only ones truly alive, until they pass that life on to those in the real world at the end of the play.

Composer Lucy Simon said, "What Marsha has done is find the adult story that's there between the lines. The power of the story is not just Mary finding the garden and bringing everything back to life but helping Archie out of his mourning state, helping him to accept and find his son again."

There is nothing quite like having a secret hideaway or like watching something I’ve planted actually grow and develop and live.  It gives me power and strength.  It renews me spirit.  It truly is a bit of magic.  I have come to believe that great things come to pass in gardens.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of The Secret Garden is taught by Dickon: “The strongest roses will fair thrive on bein’ neglected, if the soil is rich enough” (2.4). Given the chance, even those in the most dismal of situations can grow and flourish. It is then no wonder that this tale of redemption and healing has such wide appeal. While The Secret Garden is best known as a piece of children’s literature it offers deeply powerful themes and principles that are at the very heart of the human condition.

The Secret Garden is part ghost story, love story, travelogue, family saga, and even seed catalog, all joining in an unforgettable memory in the making.

 “However many years she lived, Mary always felt that 'she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow'.” 
 Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

I will never forget when my “garden” began to grow.  I will not forget auditions.  I will not forget making phone calls to recruit a few people.  I will not forget rehearsals.  I will not forget character building experiences.  I will not forget moving performances that have changed my life for the better.  Along the way I have discovered that imagination – “charm” or “magic” or faith is the power to transform lives.

The Secret Garden is a tale of redemption, rich with biblical symbolism and mythical associations. I have learned so much from each of you and my own faith (which is pretty strong) is has been strengthened because of my association with you and my experiences with this production. 

I learned from Dr. Craven, Archie, and Mary's parents, of a fallen world waiting for healing and rejuvenation. Consequently, some, like Mary and Colin are physically and spiritually malnourished, and, in the words of Burnett, down-right rude. Archie’s redemption, orchestrated by Lily’s love and at the hands of Colin and his niece ensures the return of good rule to the ancient, gloomy house and of health to the children. Dickonconstantly surrounded by life and nature evokes St. Francis or Pan.  Martha, a plain-speaking Yorkshire woman, resembles the archetypal earth mother and embodies an ancient folk wisdom seen neither in Craven nor in Mary's deceased parents. I love that the spiritual growth of Mary and Colin aligns with the seasons. Mary arrives at Misselthwaite in winter a dour and unhealthy child. She begins her gardening in the spring, and as crocuses and daffodils push up through the warming earth, her body begins to bloom and her manners to soften. Summer sees the complete regeneration of both Mary and Colin, and by the time Craven returns to Misselthwaite in autumn, the children are harvesting the fruits of their laborhealth and happiness. Archie too has found healing.  Finally, the overarching symbol of the story is the secret garden, a lost paradise of love and happinessa version, perhaps, of the Garden of Eden, now reclaimed and rejuvenated.

Simply beautiful.

Here are a few simple lessons I’ve learned along this journey.  I apologize if some of those lessons are religious in nature.  However, I am deeply religious and I make no apologies for that.  Just know that each of you have played a part in strengthening my faith in God and in His plan for us:

God can only help when invited.  We must be humble and ask.  Help came for this show when I stopped trying to be that “One Woman Show”.  Thank you everyone that came to my rescue.

God orchestrate all things, is ever present, healing in His wings.

By small and simple things all things move forward.

We must listen with the heart in order to move forward.

We must leave things behind to move forward into joy.  Whether it is sin or pain, or sadness, or bad habits,  or pride, we must put it down, let go and move on to better ourselves and find lasting peace and happiness.

The way is prepared.  Sometimes it’s people.  Sometimes it’s circumstances.  So many people prepared the way for this show to happen.  You know who you are.  Thank you.  Mostly, I know that God prepared a way for me to share how I feel  in an art form I love.
Healing takes work.  Creation takes work.  Nothing comes easily.
When you feel joy share it.  Your joy rubs off on others.  

Healing is a mighty change of heart.  Thank you for helping change mine.

He only could unlock the gate.  I know many will find this too simplistic.  But I do believe it.

Life is change. Everyone has gone through a day that has changed them in a way that prevents them from being the same person they once were.

Forget your past, forgive yourself, and begin again right now.

No matter how much it hurts now, one day you'll look back and realize it made you stronger and better off in the long run.

Bad days come sometimes just to remind you that you have plenty of good ones to look forward to. 

Someday you will be just a memory for some people. Do your best to be a good one.
It really is the little things that mean the most... like a long hug at just the right time. 

Great challenges make life interesting; overcoming them makes life meaningful. 

Do not let the shadows of your past darken the doorstep of your present and future. 

Let go, forgive and move forward. 

It is not who you are that holds you back, it is who you think you are not.

Until you're broken for awhile, you don't know what you're made of. It gives you the ability to rebuild yourself, stronger than ever before. 

When ordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances, they become extraordinary because of it. 

Whatever hurts you, leave it behind. Whatever helps you smile, keep it in mind.

A moment of success is just the final page of a story. It holds very little meaning without knowing the rest of the story leading up to it.  This show is living proof.

Every ending is the beginning of something else. Every exit is an entry somewhere else.  

All of the greatest things ever to have happened in the history of the world have happened in a garden… the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, a Sacred Grove (a bit of a garden), and for me, a Secret Garden.


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