When I was a little girl, my grandmother and I were nearly inseparable. I saw her and my Pop almost every single day. Everything we did together turned into an adventure — chasing hot air balloons, sitting in the window to wait and wave to my favorite mailman, going on fishing trips. I would call her on the phone with my “Good morning, Mommom!” wake-up call at 7 a.m., every single morning. When I was very young, she would bundle me up in a blanket on cloudless nights and carry me outside, just as the stars were beginning to come out, and hold me in the front yard so we could look at the stars and sing to the moon. She and I may not chase hot air balloons or sing to the moon much anymore now that I am an adult, but we happily use our mid-afternoon coffee dates and just-because-I-love-you phone calls as alternatives.
I think our time spent wrapped up in an old blanket in the front yard may have sparked my special connection with the North Star. For many years when I was growing up, I would sit and stare out my bedroom window, patiently waiting to find the first star in the sky so I could talk to it. Even still, I often catch myself staring up at the sky, looking for the North Star, as I am walking to my car at night.
I never mentioned this little friendship I had with the North Star to anyone, really. So, you could imagine my surprise when I found out the name of our performing arts organization, PATAsphere’s, newest full-length original musical. “We’ve got the name!” my friend Cari said. “We’re calling it ‘North Star Alley.’” No, I’m not kidding. “North Star Alley.”
Time passed and before we knew it, it was mid-July and we were welcoming 40 wildly talented young performers to our three-week summer training program, Summer PATA. They were, of course, eager to get their hands on the script and see what this year’s show was all about.
“North Star Alley,” written by the brilliant O.R. Barone, tells the story of a brother and sister, Devin and Bethany, two high school students who are at a crossroads, making decisions that will shape their future. They stumble upon a strange place called North Star Alley, home to many eccentric citizens, the Artist, and a church steeple that points directly to the North Star. When passing through the Alley, those who sit and allow the Artist to draw them are directed to stand in the North Star’s light. Through their interaction with the Artist, they come to understand something about themselves that helps them in their decision-making process.
As the story unfolds, we enter flashbacks and meet three young people, Young Sam, Meelie, and Jack, who were faced with choices that inadvertently changed the course of history. After meeting the Artist and standing in the North Star’s light, Young Sam decided to become a writer. You will probably recognize him by his pen name, Mark Twain. Meelie chose to defy gender norms and chase her dreams of flying; she is known by her full name, Amelia Earhart. Jack’s choice was a bit different. He had already been discharged from the Army after refusing to give up his seat on the bus because of the color of his skin; he had already chosen to advocate for civil rights. It only took a bit more time for the world to know about Jackie Robinson, the famous number 42.
There’s a twist, though. The North Star is not the thing that made those historic figures, or Devin or Bethany, choose the path they chose. It didn’t point them in the “right” direction; it didn’t show them their destiny. I have to admit, this took some time for me to wrap my brain around; in my friendship with the North Star, I was constantly asking for direction and to show me the way. I realized that I’d had it all wrong. The light from the North Star reflected back at them, shining a light on the qualities that made them unique, that made them strong and resilient, that made them, well, them. It showed them that everything they needed to face the world was already inside them and that there really was no one “right” path. There were many options; they chose the path that was most right for them at that particular moment.
This theme struck a chord with many of our performers, especially those in high school. Some of them are acutely aware of the path they feel inclined to take once high school is over, while some are still struggling to figure it out. We live in a world where young people are asked to establish their life plan by the time they are 17 years old. They start to believe that there is a “right” choice; something they are supposed to do or else they will be a total failure. We had the neat opportunity to remind them that they are incredibly intelligent, talented people with endless options, with so many paths to choose from.
One of the performers, Jacob, 16, said, “Just like in ‘North Star Alley,’ we have to follow our hearts and find our own paths. The path may not be what we expected but we have to keep running to where our heart takes us, no matter what barriers or walls are placed in front of us.”
In addition, every performer cited a deep connection to the weight placed on individuality and being true to oneself in the script.
Jack, 12, said that “North Star Alley” reinforced that people “should start being who they are and loving what they do.”
Fellow performer Sydney, 15, added, “I have learned that it is important to be yourself, to follow your dreams, and to be there for the people that need you.”
Sophia, 12, echoed that sentiment. “Wherever you go and whatever you do, do it for yourself. Stand up for what you believe in. It doesn’t matter what gender you are or who you love. You be you. That’s all that matters,” she said.
At PATA, we remind them how important and meaningful they are, not only to each of us as staff members, but to the world. It is so reassuring to me that they sense the value of being themselves.
I’m lucky enough to know the scriptwriter, too. An accomplished writer, Lonnie has written countless stories over the years. I asked him to explain his connection to this particular story.
“What this play means to me personally is something of which I am surely only partially aware,” he said. “When Bethany faces her great crisis, when Amelia Earhart defiantly takes on the impossible, I think of my daughters and all they overcame to fulfill their dreams. When Jack is faced with the prospect of joining the never-ending battle for his people’s freedom, I am again marching in Washington for civil rights or standing in the center of Villanova campus crying out for racial justice two days after Martin Luther King was murdered. When Sam is pondering the welter of anecdotes and fragments of stories resounding in his brain, I think of the astounding young performers who bring my work to life year after year, who let me know why the loneliest profession in the world, writing, is worth it all.”
The man is a genius.
All of this got me thinking, what was my big takeaway from “North Star Alley”? Of course, my first instinct is to echo the poignant words of our kids: follow your heart, make your own path, be yourself. I also thought about my old friend, the North Star. It isn’t special because it is the brightest or biggest star. It’s special because it is a constant point of reference, a silent yet steady guide that has always helped people to navigate and find their way.
Then, it hit me. There are plenty of North Stars among us — our steady guides, helping us to see the light that shines from within. We created a North Star when we formed PATAsphere, an organization that accomplishes the impossible and demands nothing less than acceptance, growth, learning, and love. Lonnie is certainly a North Star, continuously creating beautiful stories that children and adults alike can learn from. So is my friend, Cari, our fearless founder and director, whose vision has created everything that PATAsphere is, and whose light radiates to everyone around her and tells them that they are capable of anything. And, of course, the brightest stars are our kids — they never fail to shine their light on each and every one of us at PATA, reflecting back at us and bringing out our very best, reminding us that every path we have taken has brought us to the moment when all 40 of them walk in the door, eager to learn.
So, I’ll still look up and say hello to my old friend every so often. But, this summer has taught me that I don’t need a cloudless night sky to see my North Stars.
PATAsphere, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Dallas, Pa., prides itself on being an organization that is invested in supporting the arts and leadership within its local community. Their mission is to provide young performers state-of-the-art voice, dance, and drama training within a safe, accepting, and engaging environment. The only academy of its kind in Northeast Pa., PATA integrates the artistry of performance with key principles of anatomy, physiology, and current learning theories. To learn more about PATAsphere and its upcoming performances in the Scranton Fringe Festival this September, click here.