Creating Community

By Greg Reiner


Woman and man standing in front of posters hung on wall.

Jane Carlton and Greg Reiner. Photo courtesy of Greg Reiner

Picture it: Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, California. 1990. A shy, somewhat awkward freshman (spoiler alert: me) nervously walks into the first meeting of the school’s drama club. Everyone seems to know each other—bubbling over with excitement over the new school year. I keep hearing reference to what Jane is planning for the big musical this year: “Not Oklahoma, Jane hates Oklahoma. Maybe South Pacific?” and I wonder who this Jane is. A student leader? Maybe a recent graduate? Clearly someone all the students are close friends with and admire. Sitting off by myself, close enough to the group to hear the conversation but at a far enough remove to not be included, I don’t notice when an adult glides behind me until she offers her hand out in greeting. “Hi, I’m Jane. Welcome to drama. Come on, sit with the group. You’re part of the family now.”

I often think about that first day in drama club, how our teacher Jane (nobody ever called her Mrs. Carlton except the other teachers) changed the course of my life, and led me to a career working with some of the great artists of our time. She taught me that making theater is first about creating a community, a family. Time and again in my career in the arts I have come back to that simple lesson.

It’s almost Thanksgiving week as I write this, which was always around the time that auditions for the spring musical took place. I measured my four years in high school by the musicals we did; I could tell you what happened in my life during that time in relation to how close it was to the time we did Into the Woods or West Side Story. The one constant I can measure in all of the ups and downs of those turbulent high school years is Jane and my friends in the drama room.

Sitting in the audience at the Tony Awards in 2009, the year I was on the team nominated for Best Play for 33 Variations, I remember flashing back to a scene replayed so many times in the high school drama room. The walls were lined with posters from shows going all the way back to when the school opened. Jane insisted on never repeating a show, so we were surrounded by the names of musicals and plays representing decades of titles, and we always thought about our own place in that continuum. Who came before us and who would come after? Where would our place be in that long line?

Whenever I’ve tried over the years to give her credit for my success of and the success of my classmates, she has always turned it back on us. It was never about her, she claims, it was always about us, about what we brought to the table as students and young artists. And maybe she was right; maybe we all would have found ourselves and our talents on our own. But without someone to shine the light, to give us a safe space and a community to call our own, I think all of our lives would be less rich, less fulfilled, less true to ourselves and our own potential. So maybe the core of what she taught us was something like that quote from Anne Sexton: “Put your ear down close to your soul, and listen hard.”

Thank you, Jane.