a roman style statue

The Marble Connection

Sometimes the fastest way to someone’s heart is to turn to stone.

In 2004, at the tail end of a decade-long relationship, I transplanted myself from New York City to Rhode Island. Intrigued with the culture of my new home state, I spent hours alone at WaterFire Providence, an outdoor evening event where hundreds of small, fragrant bonfires burn in braziers along the banks of the river. I liked WaterFire and its downtown street festival vibe, but what kept me coming back were the gargoyles.

On most WaterFire nights, street performers in elaborate theater makeup and costumes appeared as living white marble statues and gargoyles at the base of the city’s World War I monument. Perched atop marble-painted wood platforms, the chalky statues blended with the backdrop of the silvery-gray monument as if carved from the same stone. Next to each statue stood a matching column with a narrow opening in the top. A dollar donation in the column would bring the statue to life and buy you an inspiring fortune or a riddle on a brightly colored paper scroll. Moving slowly and gracefully, the statue would break her pose, grandly retrieve the scroll from a pouch, and gently place it in your hand as if delivering priceless words from the heavens.

One to three gargoyles, also on platforms, always flanked the statues like gothic bodyguards. Charcoal gray and eerie, their bodies contrasted with the monument stone and the divine presence of the statues. As the gargoyles moved lithely under the nighttime lighting, their masked faces morphed from grotesque grimaces to mischievous grins. The gargoyles were spooky when still, but playful when approached. Surprised youngsters would often squeal with delight when the gargoyles tousled their hair with their long, slender fingers.

I’d find a good spot and sit quietly for an hour or two, mesmerized by the gargoyles as I processed my breakup. Their melancholic beauty seemed to embody my pain and their slow movements, my lethargy. When I felt ready, I’d take a deep breath, climb the monument steps, stuff my own dollar in the gargoyle’s column, and bask in the circle of its mysterious gray spell. Sometimes it would touch my hair or face, sometimes not. But always it would hold my gaze, wordlessly and thoughtfully, as if pondering its own reflection. It understood me. It was magic.

On a spring day eight years later, the magic of the gargoyles and statues entered my life again. Healed from my old relationship but bored with my office job, I trolled internet job postings during my lunch break and noticed an audition announcement from TEN31 Productions—the company whose name I’d seen on the back of the statues’ scrolls.

I impulsively emailed a few pictures of myself along with a long, passionate fan letter and a plea for an audition. They’d requested an acting resume, but I had no performance experience since my sixth-grade production of Oklahoma!

As soon as I hit “send,” I regretted it. I’m 43—too old, I thought. Their performers are probably all college drama students. But to my amazement, two days later I received a reply with an audition time for the following week.

I arrived at my audition nervous, sweaty, and cursing myself for applying. I was easily the oldest hopeful there. But when my name was called and I met the company’s creators—the original gargoyles—excitement powered me through my audition. I must have impressed them with my tai chi–inspired impressions of a living statue, because in another two days I learned I’d made the cut.

Incredulous, I basked in my success and the congratulations of friends, even as a darker concern loomed. As a spectator, I’d enjoyed the magic of the characters. But once I’d learned the behind-the-scenes logistics, would it destroy the mystery?

He gasped and stared into my face, wide-eyed, his expression an endearing blend of joy, wonder, and disbelief; the statue had moved!

My trial performance was as a bronze statue, not at WaterFire but up Interstate 95 at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in downtown Boston. Patrick, another performer, was assigned as my producer. He helped me prepare for the three-hour gig in a quiet corner of an adjoining parking garage. After I applied opaque golden-bronze makeup to my face, neck, and hands, Patrick helped me into my matching costume: a long-sleeved, long-skirted, brown cotton pilgrim outfit with a bonnet. It was a sunny, 92-degree July day and I envisioned both myself and the costume melting in the heat.

I also feared that my foray into “living the magic” would be a dismal failure. As Patrick led me out of the cool shade of the garage and I stepped slowly in my chocolate-brown pilgrim shoes through the gawking throngs, Patrick casually mentioned that he’d recently assisted another new performer who, 15 minutes into her gig, stepped down off the platform and swore off performing forever.

Patrick helped me step onto the platform. While I assumed my most statuesque pilgrim pose, intrigued onlookers formed a semicircle. Gazing into the small crowd, I recalled standing on my grammar school stage as cowgirl No. 12 on opening night of Oklahoma! and peering with awe and fear at the sea of parents’ faces in the school auditorium. Like then, there was no turning back.

In my bronze pilgrim hand, I held a large hollowed-out book, also painted bronze, filled with bright blue paper fortunes. A little boy, urged by his father, stepped into the semicircle, shyly approached my platform, and cautiously inserted a dollar into my tip column. Recalling the grace of the marble WaterFire statues, I smoothly opened the book, retrieved a fortune, and placed it gently into his little hand. He gasped and stared into my face, wide-eyed, his expression an endearing blend of joy, wonder, and disbelief; the statue had moved! He ran to his father, clutching the scroll like a prize. I resumed my pose, locked eyes with the boy’s father, and winked. The man exploded with laughter. I was hooked.

That afternoon I handed out countless more scrolls to other shy kids, curious adults, and bemused tourists. I ignored the rivulets of sweat that tickled my skin. Couples debated if I was real or if I was breathing. A teenage girl timidly squeezed my bronzed hand. When I squeezed back, she ran to her friends, laughing and shrieking. A drunken man tried to put a used tissue in my book. Patrick chased him off. People stared. Kids pointed. I posed for pictures. And through it all, the magic flowed.

At the end of the shift, Patrick helped me off the platform, back to the parking lot, and out of my costume. The shorts and sports top I’d worn underneath were soaked with salty sweat. I was physically drained but strangely energized. I drove home blasting dance music and singing, and even after a cool, soothing shower at home, I couldn’t calm down. It was as if the cover of my pilgrim book was the lid of Pandora’s Box, and I had unknowingly opened a direct portal to the mysterious source of the magic. I lay awake most of that night smiling, eager for my next gig.

I’ve since performed at dozens of public and private events as many different characters, but WaterFire, where I discovered the statues and gargoyles, is still one of my favorite venues.

One summer WaterFire evening, I performed as a white marble statue of the Roman goddess Minerva, handing out riddles from my marble-painted canvas pouch. From the dropping temperatures and thinning crowd, I knew it was almost time to wrap for the night. A woman approached my platform, alone. Small and plain, she was unremarkable except for a palpable misery that seemed to burden her steps and dim her face. She slowly inserted a dollar into my column and I grandly delivered the riddle, as usual. But she lingered, pressing the small blue paper between her palms like a child praying. Looking up at me, her eyes filled with tears as she implored, “Will this help me solve the riddle of my life?

I spread my arms wide, slowly reached for her, and gently held her head in my hands. At my touch, she began sobbing. We stood together for a minute, her forehead just inches from my elaborate headdress, she releasing her tears and I holding the space for her to do so. When she caught her breath, I lifted her chin, looked in her eyes, and blew a kiss. Then I crossed my hands over my heart and opened them to her. I love you, I gestured. I recognize your pain. It’s going to be okay. The woman deeply inhaled and gratefully whispered, “Thank you. Thank you.” I continued gesturing and waving as she slowly walked away, glancing back over her shoulder, clutching the riddle to her chest.

Wendy Lewis is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Illustration by Marina Muun

Originally Published July 2016