While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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The Jonah Mac Theatre – Part 3

PGT's Jonah Mac Theatre

Steven and Jill Abusch started Play Group Theatre (PGT) in 1995 and currently serve respectively as Executive Director and Artistic Director. While teaching their young charges to dig deeply into their creative reservoirs, they have never viewed “the production” as the be-all-and-end-all of their work but, rather, have always placed the greatest emphasis on how to nourish young hearts and spirits, using theatre as an excuse to help kids grow, as we say here at The Jonah Maccabee Foundation, healthy and whole. In designing the Jonah Mac Theatre, ever-so-lovingly dedicated to the memory of our boy Jonah, Steven and Jill paid obvious attention to creating a practical and beautiful theatrical space but, with a twinkle of mischief in their eyes, they incorporated into the room’s design elements that reflect who Jonah was, and what it was about him that Steven and Jill want young people to know: how his very essence embodied PGT’s mission and that the things he valued can (and will) continue to serve as a model for those who will come to PGT in the years ahead. These aspiring performers will think that they’re signing up to act in a play but, in actuality, they’ll be embarking upon a wonderful journey of life skills (and love skills!) training. On PGT’s website, Steven and Jill write, “Our work is focused entirely on the love of the craft and the life lessons that are a natural result of a healthy and non-competitive creative process.”

*     *     *

Dear Jonah,

Your time at PGT exemplified what Steven and Jill hope to achieve with every kid who walks through the doors of “NoBro” (One North Broadway in White Plains, NY). And with the opening of the Jonah Mac Theatre, you apparently have joined their faculty (albeit metaphysically) because you still have some teaching to do.

At the ceremony of dedication (on Sunday, March 11), Jill spoke about the evening’s significance, about her feelings for you, and about what she and Steven set out to achieve in designing this room that bears your name.

As you knew, mom and I have always been big fans of the Abusches. We know what it means to take young people under our wing and because of that, from the outset, we knew you were safe at PGT and that you were going to acquire a whole world of learning and of life experience from them. What we didn’t understand was just how deeply these two remarkable human beings would affect our own lives. Mom and I were in awe not just of their abundant talent but of their incredible humanity. That they continue to hold both you and Aiden so close to their hearts (now years after you’ve both left the program), and that they continue to touch our hearts and souls so deeply (again, years after your and Aiden’s PGT experiences) — these are a testimony to the remarkable and priceless treasure that is Steven and Jill Abusch.

It is simply astounding to me that your presence continues to be felt by them AND to be a tool that they use for teaching others. Here are Jill’s words:

Billy and Ellen figured out so quickly after Jonah died how to turn their pain into words, and more importantly, into action. They have set the example for the rest of us, always the teachers, even in this painful journey. I was listening to a podcast recently, in which a man described his work with war veterans. He talked about spending years trying to heal these men, by taking away their pain, by lessening their loss. Which, of course, he couldn’t. Eventually he learned to focus instead on helping them to make it matter. If he could help them make their loss matter, then, through action, they could begin to heal.

Steven and Jill at the dedication

The Dreskins somehow tapped into that early on. They have been making it matter for nine years – repairing our world in Jonah’s honor through a variety of initiatives. We are so grateful that they have helped us find a way to make it matter here at The Play Group Theatre, where we love and miss Jonah so much.

Billy and Ellen named their son Jonah Maccabee Dreskin. When we met him, we called him Jonah. It seemed the right thing to do – it was his name. And it suited him. When Jonah went off to college, he pulled Ellen and Billy aside on move-in day and asked them not to call him Jonah – he wanted to be known as Mac. And there at Buffalo University, that was his name. His friends only knew him as Mac. He was carving out a new, adult identity for himself. We don’t know where he would have landed with that – what he would have ultimately called himself.

We’re naming the theatre the Jonah Mac Theatre, because we want to honor the child that Jonah was while he was here at PGT, and the adult he was choosing to be out in the world. And we hope that all of our students will be inspired by that – to fully embrace their childhoods, and to lean into who they are while in the warm embrace of their parents and this theatre, and then use that as a foundation to go out and create the adulthoods they envision for themselves.

Jonah was really friendly. Not just friendly….but FRIIIEEEENNNNDLY. Like it was his mission. So it was really important to us that we fill the Jonah Mac Theatre with welcoming, vibrant color, and warm lights. Still to come will be a bright orange piano! My favorite memory of Jonah is from callbacks for Secret Garden. The show calls for a cast of adults, which in our world means teenagers, and just two young children. Back in our studios, before this beautiful theatre, we were in a small room and there were a ton of teenagers, and just a couple of younger kids. Among the younger kids: a young Noah Weiner at his first ever PGT callback. He was super nervous and totally overwhelmed by all the noise and all the big kids in a crowded space. At the beginning of every callback, the first thing we do is tell everyone to take two minutes and find someone they don’t know and make a new friend. Well, Noah (who was about 9) was so nervous that he crawled under the upright piano that was up against the wall. And when I looked up, Jonah (who was about 16) had crawled under the piano with him, to introduce himself and make a new friend. Jonah stayed there with Noah until he felt confident enough to come out (it took a while!). Our new orange upright piano will be a fixture in the Jonah Mac Theatre, for future Noahs who need refuge, and for future Jonahs who are friendly enough to join them and make a new friend.

To know Jonah was to be prepared for the unexpected. He was full of surprises. You would say, “Hey, Jonah,” and he would sweep you up and swing you around in a big hug. Not just his friends. Me. And Steven. That joyful element of surprise created a feeling of whimsy that followed Jonah around. And it made him such a great actor … brilliant, really. Audiences just loved that they never quite knew what to expect from him – his work on stage always felt spontaneous and fresh. And so we’ve included surprises in the Jonah Mac Theatre: a random orange chair; a random blue pipe. We want our students to surprise themselves, and each other. To let themselves take creative risks, and wander away from their prepared plan, to take their craft seriously but never take themselves too seriously.

Our Jonah was able to listen to the beat of his own heart. He didn’t look sideways to see what everyone else was doing when choosing who to be, or how to think … or what to wear. He didn’t care that nobody else was wearing a black and white checkered fedora hat. He liked it, so he wore it. We honor that confident, creative, non-conforming spirit with floor to ceiling black-and-white-checkered curtains, and we hope that our students will be inspired to be bold, courageous and totally their own selves. We want our students to Dare to be Different, as Jonah did.

Photos (mostly) from the 3/11/18 dedication

The truth is, these curtains were a total pain in the butt to install … but they are totally magnificent! Just like Jonah! Throughout the installation, we ran into one unforeseen obstacle after another. It took days longer than anticipated. I kept hearing Steven say something to the effect of, “Why won’t you do what I want you to do?!?!” It felt familiar. As Jonah’s parents and directors can attest, raising and teaching Jonah felt like that … a lot! But once the curtains were installed, we stood back and were awestruck, speechless at how they transformed the entire theatre. We couldn’t get over how amazing they were. Which also felt familiar. It is just how we felt when we watched Jonah on stage. Awestruck. Speechless. Unable to believe how amazing he was. That was Jonah: a total pain in the butt, and totally worth it! We want our students to know that it is okay to be a pain in the butt. It is okay to struggle. It is okay to be difficult. It is okay to hit obstacles along the way. Getting to “installation” isn’t always a straight line. Often, the obstacles are what get you to the magnificence. It doesn’t have to be easy. We, the adults who love you, are ready to struggle with you.

This theatre does not take away our loss. And we will always miss Jonah. But to the Dreskins, and to all who loved and lost Jonah Dreskin, we pledge that as artists and educators we will work to make that loss matter here in the Jonah Mac Theatre.

As an educator, I’m blown away by the lessons Steven and Jill built into their new theatre. As your dad, I’m a puddle of tears knowing that you are regarded so highly all these years after your death.

I’m endlessly grateful to Jill and Steven, of course. I’m eternally grateful to you, my son, for living your life in ways that make me so incredibly proud.

Love you forever,
Dad


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