The set for my last high school theater production was the grandest we’d ever had. Through the years, I’d seen airports, giant trees, and even rotating stages erected on our hardwood stage. This time, we knew from the beginning that Ms. Cuellar (our teacher, director, and collective mother) had plans to go out with a bang.

She chose Clue, a ridiculous murder mystery comedy based off the 1985 film, which was inspired by the board game. A whirlwind of auditions back in February put me in the role of Miss Scarlet, described as a a “dry, sardonic D.C. madam who is more interested in secrets than sex”. Half my lines in the first few scenes were suggestive innuendos—I had gone from playing a nurturing mother teapot to a cigarette-smoking manager of sex workers. But that’s what you sign up for.

The set was a monstrosity in the best way possible. Two stories, a staircase on one side and a giant ladder on the other, multiple hidden doors and a hallway in the back. A pool table in a billiard room. Everything built from scratch. The half-finished set in the photo above doesn’t even begin to capture the classy, retro gleam of our 1950’s rooms. It’s magical, the way you can make a whole mansion come to life onstage, so well that the audience’s disbelief is completely suspended for those fleeting two hours. Lights off, lights on. Hope gone, Scarlet on. Set gone, just a mansion onstage.

And the curtain falls for the last time. We take our very last bows. In a storm of cheers and sobs and flashes of cameras, the crowd slowly but surely disappears, offstage and trickling out the doors of the venue, flowers passing hands and bobby pins taken out of tangles. It must be an hour or two at least until the stage is completely empty. Amidst the festivities in the drama room, I remember I left my ring in Miss Scarlet’s purse and walk back onstage innocuously. I find my ring, and when I look up, there it is.

The mansion. Just a whole lot of wood and a whole lot of paint. Pressed in from all sides by the silence.

And for the first time that day, I cry tears of sadness. I don’t know what is sadder than an empty set. The twinkle and spark gone, like some unearthly spirit has departed silently, left no breath behind to sustain the life in those walls and the furniture; as if it, too, knows we are graduating. There are places, and then there are inhabited places. They could be the exact same and yet a world apart.

I remember the same moment from exactly one year ago: after the last curtain call for Beauty and the Beast, I waited until everyone was gone to step through our stage one last time, the Beast’s castle, adorned in curling, intricate designs of blue and gold. To see it empty was overwhelming. No more dancing spoons and forks, no more townspeople slamming down glasses of beer, and no more magical dinners, Belle’s golden dress twirling in the light as my shaky voice stumbles through the theme song. I broke down on the steps. Jared (who was no longer the charming Lumiere, just my good friend Jared) came to console me and I ugly-sobbed into his costume.

Physical spaces are such haunting reminders of everything that happened there and will never reoccur. The flashbacks of who tripped and fell down which steps and who made a silly joke on which velvet couch. An empty set is tragic because it makes you think over and over again how the people, and only the people, can make an experience truly unforgettable. And people come and go. I come and go.

Now forever embedded in my memory is the moment Ms. Cuellar called my name to be recognized as one of the departing seniors. When she handed me flowers and hugged me, she whispered something into my ear—and it wasn’t “congratulations”. It wasn’t “good job” or “amazing performance tonight”. It was “I love you”.

So perhaps that means I avoided an even worse fate. At least I relished the limited time I had with that cast and crew. The guys I rolled my eyes at every afternoon, the girls that made me feel like an older sister. An empty set is not the saddest thing. The true topper of tragedies is when you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I’m glad I knew what I had. Thank you, Ms. Cuellar.

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