Hooray for another piece of creative non-fiction. This one is slated to be turned in Monday at 6:00, so if you have comments, feedback, or critique, send it in post haste! 🙂
I blame my mother really. Because she was involved in community theater in our hometown, it meant I was, too. While she rehearsed, helped decorate sets or sew costumes, or played the piano during auditions, I was left with other urchins to run wild in our own version of Neverland—the backstage area, concrete orchestra pit, and balcony of Collins Theater. During the months she and the other actors read and blocked scenes for the 1985 debut of The Sound of Music to the theatergoing public of Paragould, Arkansas, I can honestly say I was less than impressed. People forgot lines. Songs were strangled mid-verse when someone missed a mark. Dance steps were more lumbering than lovely. It reminded me of the pick-up games of baseball my brother Jarrod and I would join in at the local field—you know, the kind where only six kids have gloves and the game abruptly ends in the fifth when the only ball sails into Mrs. Wilcox’s impenetrable back yard.
I think the kids’ chorus was invented to give us, the legion of unsupervised tots at each rehearsal, something to do to keep us from tearing the historic building down. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a play requiring not one but seven children to pull it off, and the Greene County Fine Arts Council had more than enough young’uns to fill that quota. So they had to stick us in as scene fillers, mostly when the nuns were involved. However, I just knew there was no way thirty kids would live in an abbey unless it was one of the freakiest nunneries in the world. And nothing in the rehearsals suggested it was that kind of play.
That was how I was pulled onto the stage instead of dancing around it like a dervish, and the experience was altogether different in the rarefied air four feet off the floor. I could smell the gold paint being used to decorate the walls of the grand ballroom and see the rigging that held up a cobweb of lights above us. I loved the sound my heels made on the wooden floor that was slightly spongy beneath my feet and the feel of the burgundy velvet curtain as it brushed past me like a harried commuter on a subway platform.
For ever-longer periods of time, I sat in the front rows waiting for my group’s cue and watched as my mother was transformed from the woman I knew—a middle school secretary who cut the crusts of my pimento cheese sandwiches—into Elsa Schrader, the baroness who, until the frumpy nun shows up with a guitar in hand, has her immaculately painted claws securely in Captain Von Trapp.
She sang duets. She danced. She laughed in a throaty way she never did at home and drank wine from an empty glass. She was coquettish and demanding by turns. And she was radiant.
She brought her costumes home to make final alterations, and while she and Daddy were out at dinner, I snuck up to their room to see them in their finished forms. My favorite was the ruby gown she wore for three scenes, the one with the single shoulder strap that left one tanned arm gloriously bare and the slit in the side that revealed a hint of leg whenever she strutted across the stage. I finally worked up the courage to slide the dress from its hangar and try it on over my clothes. I pinned my hair up in a banana clip and stood on a footstool to get the full effect in the mirror perched over the dresser. Then I closed my eyes and sang the libretto of one of her songs that I’d l memorized weeks before—So every star on every whirling planet and every constellation in the sky revolves around the center of the universe, that lovely thing called I.
I suppose I was hoping to feel a jolt, a spark, some kind of radiating energy pouring from my fingertips the same way she must have when in character. But it wasn’t the same without the lights and sounds and smells, the glorious chaos of stagecraft going on in the wings. It was hard enough to slip into someone else’s skin with a set and supporting characters, but was it was impossible when you could see your pink gingham canopy bed reflected in the mirror, reminding you who you actually were.
The next summer, the council decided to host a week long drama workshop for the throngs of itinerant youth who hadn’t been sent to summer camp or gone on vacation to exotic places like Disney World (for the well-to-do) or Hot Springs (for the station wagon set). For six days, we invaded the ground floor of First Methodist Church down on Main Street, transforming the normally staid and quiet hallways into a cacophonous world filled with moxie and glitter.
One day, we were taught the basics of acting—how to project your voice, to feign emotion (something that I’m ashamed to admit came in handy both on and off stage), and to use your body to speak as well as your mouth. Other days, we learned the art of stage make-up and how an amount of blush and blue eye shadow that was garish up close was necessary if you wanted people in the back row to be able to make you out. We happily slapped foundation on one another with triangular sponges, learned how to make the “mascara face,” and practiced smiling with Vaseline slathered on our teeth.
We were given boxes of used clothing and accessories and asked to create a character based on the first three items we pulled out with our eyes closed. I drew a feather boa, a green skirt with a few glittering beads still attached, and a black pillbox hat complete with veil and became Ms. Cleo Mimosa, a former vaudeville star and unapologetic diva, for the rest of the day. I distinctly remember returning the props to their boxes, but I couldn’t shed Ms. Mimosa and spent the evening thoroughly annoying my family by referring to myself in the third person and making outrageous demands. “Ms. Mimosa doesn’t eat peas,” I told them, flinging my fork onto the pile still on my plate. And before bed, I’d stormed out of the steamy bathroom wrapped in a towel and waving my Wonder Woman pajamas over my head like a flag, screeching “You certainly can’t expect Ms. Mimosa to sleep in these raggedy old things!” When I tried the same routine the next morning, my father gave me “the look”—the one where he slightly cocked his head and arched his left eyebrow—that told me in no uncertain terms that it was best for all involved parties if Ms. Mimosa slept in.
Singing, dancing, blocking—we experienced it all in a four-day blur of creativity and color that led up to try-outs for the Saturday play. I’d memorized a thirty-second monologue that had something to do with picking daises, a snippet that could show my miming prowess as well as my ability to be surprised, delighted, and blissful. My audition must have gone well because I was one of six kids called up for speaking roles in what would become our slapdash performance of a Chinese fairy tale involving Bashe, a cunning beast, and other assorted talking creatures. There was also Li Tan, the handsome young hero, his loyal dog, Po, and a beautiful princess named Niulang caught in the middle of it all.
Our director had the same problem many of his ilk share—a stunning lack of suitable male thespians. Drama is a source of glee for many a woman and girl, but for anyone with a modicum of testosterone in his system, it is typically something to be despised and passed over in favor of climbing trees and spitting for distance. Of the half dozen of us who could memorize lines and steps, there wasn’t a Y chromosome to be found, so the prince was going to have to be played by a girl.
My first thought was, Forget that! I didn’t go through all this just to get laughed at like some kind of freak!
Of course, I had yet to learn of La Cage aux Folles, Victor Victoria, Twelfth Night, or even Yentl. At that point, the only version I’d read of The Iliad had been stripped of the scene where Achilles’ mother dressed him in drag to keep him out of the Trojan War. In my mind, playing a dog, an angel, or even tree was all well and good because gender didn’t enter into it, but to pretending to swap one’s sex entirely (and on purpose) was unthinkable. A girl like me doing something like that was just begging to be mocked.
In elementary school, I was quite literally head and shoulders above most boys in my class, which was great when I needed to hustle a few bucks playing tetherball, but not so much during the other 164 hours of a week. I had long before decided that due to my leviathan stature, the best thing for me would be to draw attention to myself via anything done in a sitting position. So I became a word nerd, a voracious consumer of texts whose construction paper “book worm” with body segments listing the works she’d read that year went around the classroom, lapping those of the lazier students. Being on stage was the only place I could use to stand up in front of people and not be embarrassed by how I looked. After all, you’re pretending to be someone else.
“I want to be the princess,” I proclaimed, not willing to leave it to chance.
And fish, fish. I got my wish.
Because the camp’s budget was humble and most of the money put into the set, we were going to perform without costumes and only use a few props to help people figure out who we were. The kids playing animals wore cheap plastic masks, the kind that were strapped to your face with a piece of elastic and were beyond impossible to breathe through. Po, the canine sidekick, got some greasepaint whiskers to go with his faux fur ears and tail. Li Tan was given a plastic sword and shield. And I, Niulang, proudly bore a gaudy tiara covered in paste jewels.
It’s no red dress, I thought. But it’ll have to do.
As we rehearsed, two things became apparent. One, there was a great deal of rug burn involved if you were cast in any of the four-legged roles. And two, I was thrilled beyond measure not to be Rona Marsh, the girl who ended up with Li Tan’s role. She spent hours running around pretending to swing that stupid plastic sword in mock battle with Bashe, shouting my character’s name, and grunting. I was embarrassed for her.
There was one thing I wasn’t pleased with, however, and that was my surprisingly small amount of lines. Other than one scene where I told my mother I would be careful in the woods and another where I was stolen by Bashe, I wasn’t in much of the production. I spent a good deal of time on stage of course, cruelly bound to a pillar by the evil creature who planned on making a meal of me after slaughtering my rescuer, but it just wasn’t the same.
The night of the performance, the teachers took us into a chapel off to the side of the church’s multipurpose room where the play was to be performed and had us each lie down in one of the padded pews.
“Close your eyes,” Bob, the director, whispered. “Imagine yourself on the stage tonight. You’ve seen it with your eyes, so now you can picture it in your mind. Think about who you are tonight, who the people in the audience will see.”
I closed my eyes and tried to think about Niulang. A handful of lines and a tiara—not much to go on.
“You aren’t yourself to them; you are a beaver or an old woman. And if you believe you are that other person, they will, too. It’s up to you to take them where you are, to tell them the story,” he finished in a nearly breathless murmur. “Are you ready?”
A chorus of “mmm hmms” and “uh huhs” wafted up from the pews.
“Then let’s get out there and break a leg,” he said, putting on a grotesque latex mask. He’d had to play Bashe himself because everyone else was too small for the costume.
I’d chosen to wear a pastel pink t-shirt and a long white skirt to look feminine. And with the delicate crown firmly stuck to my scalp with the help of a box of bobby pins, I was as ready as I’d ever be. However, once I was done with my lines, done with reassuring my mother and pitifully pleading for my life, and set on the periphery of the stage to watch the drama unfold, I saw how wrong I’d been to pick the part I had.
In a pair of acid wash jeans, cowboy boots, and a black collared shirt, with only plastic weapons and the suspension of disbelief to help her, Rona became her character. I stood and watched as she gained the trust of all the animals of the forest, bravely fought all obstacles in her path, and worked her way in and out of danger. She was all dynamic action. Her curly shoulder-length black hair trailed behind her like smoke, and every gesture she made had purpose. To block. To advance. To point the way to victory. Because she believed she was Li Tan, that’s who the rest of us saw.
Meanwhile, all I could do was stand there and pretend to wriggle. I felt weak and small, not because I was loosely bound to a Styrofoam column with a piece of rope, but because I’d chosen to put myself there. I’d taken the safer role, gone the expected route, and I was missing out on what could have been my first chance to vanish in front of an audience. I suddenly felt naked in my pastel costume, more out of place than ever before. Because I couldn’t see myself as a princess, it was impossible for me to pretend to be.
When Li Tan rescued me and led me back to my mother, I followed with my head down in what everyone assumed was humble thanks but was actually shame and an eagerness to be off that stage entirely.
On the way out, my family, who’d brought me a bouquet of yellow roses, congratulated me and told me what a wonderful job I’d done.
“I really believed you were scared, being stuck up all alone in that tower,” my grandmother said, affectionately patting me on the back.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her drama looks easy when you’re not really acting.