Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Theater Chronicles: Pt. 1 - Of What Came Before

I'm so far beyond happy right now. When I was a teen I had a career plan. I was going to be a drama teacher. It was going to be wonderful and I was going to ignite a passion in young people. At some point in my first year of college I started thinking about that dream in realistic and concrete terms. I began to imagine not just the awesome classroom exercises I would lead or the public performances I would direct but also the "staff development" meetings I would sit through, the teacher evaluations I would endure. I thought for the first time of those students who took drama not because they had a love of the stage but because it was the class their pencil dropped on in the "fine arts credits" column. I began to wonder how I would grade students who had a great deal more enthusiasm than talent. And suddenly I knew that I wasn't cut out for teaching, at least not in a public school setting. I switched majors to something more practical that I wouldn't completely hate and I shelved a dream.

When I gave up the dream of teaching theater I also shelved being a part of the theater. First I had studies to concentrate upon. Maybe later I would have time for my silly hobby. Then I had small children who needed me. Maybe when they grew up I might have time for my silly hobby. Then I was in a small community and the theater group was probably cliquish and I was shy. Maybe someday I'd get the gumption up to indulge my silly hobby.

In January, my then-11-year-old daughter told me she wanted to try her hand at acting. I can't say I gave it much thought beyond agreeing that she could audition for a play "sometime" if a suitable part came up. She was elated and in her youthful passion she mentioned it to a church friend who happens to serve on the community theater's board. In February my mom was dying, I was driving 160 miles a day to be with her in the hospice then returning home each evening to care for my family. One evening when I checked messages there was one from the church friend. "Hey honey. I just wanted to let you know they're doing the cutest little play called 'Kids Say the Darndest Things' and holding auditions in a week. It would be just perfect for Shannen, don't you think?" My heart skipped a beat. My brain went into overdrive. She HAD to be in this play but how on earth was I going to manage to get her to auditions and help her learn lines while my mother was 80 miles away dying? I was so conflicted. Finally I decided to take her to auditions and just see what happened.

Luck was on my side, sort of. The first day of auditions there was a nasty ice storm. That meant no trip to sit with Mom that day. We slid into a parking spot in front of the theater and both girls and I trooped into a frozen theater. Almost literally. The plumbing had completely frozen. The heat wasn't working. It was cold and miserable. But I was in a theater again for the first time in 14 years and it felt like being home. A sad, shivering group of kids assembled in the front of the house. Two adults besides the director were there. Another joined us later. I helped Shannen fill out her bio sheet. I had a few words with the director. I volunteered to work backstage if needed. It was something my mother did in my early theater years, too. If she was going to have to drive me into town for rehearsals and hang around waiting, she might as well be productive and keep an eye on me. More often than not she served as a dresser, assisting people with quick costume changes.

I sat and watched kids read parts. I'd like to say Shannen was a shining star but she wasn't. She was better than many of the hopefuls with no prior experience but there were plenty better than she was. And then the director pleaded for adults to audition for the part of the host. I watched the dad stumble through a painful reading. I debated internally. I tried to talk myself out of it but somehow my body shot up against my brain's will. I grabbed a pencil from the pile near the bio sheets and I stepped up onto the stage with a script.

Let me flash back for a moment to a time when I was around 12 years old myself. I was an avid reader and frequent patron of the local library. I had discovered an author named Erma Bombeck who made me laugh even though I probably didn't identify with a lot of the humor. On the shelf near Erma's offerings was a small tome entitled "Kids Say the Darndest Things" by Art Linkletter. I checked it out one day and had finished reading it by the next. And then I read it again. And again. I couldn't have told you then what it was in Mr. Linkletter's writing that struck such a chord in me but I knew that he spoke to a very private part of myself. Sure, the things he mentioned the kids saying was funny, but that wasn't what I got from his book. There was something in HIM that appealed to me. It would be more than 20 years before I understood what it was. My point is that I identified with this role. Strangely, in January before I knew about this play I had been watching YouTube clips of the show to try and cheer myself up as Mom's condition wore me down.

When I stepped on stage that evening, some amazing things happened. The first was that my passion for performing was reignited. I hadn't even been aware of the loss until I felt it return. The second was that some part of Art Linkletter came through me as I read his words to my audience. I don't mean in that corny "channelling" way. I wasn't possessed. But that something inside me that had been stirred so many years ago reading the book for the first dozen times came alive and poured out of me. It was a sense of wonder, awe, amazement, and yes, amusement at the minds of children and a burning desire to share that with the world. I wanted people to see the freshness with which the young view the world and to laugh not only at the obviously humorous misuses of our language but at the innocence and yet timeless wisdom of their genuine observations.

I guess I wowed the director but I honestly don't remember much of my performance because I was lost in it. She took a few days before letting me know for sure I had the part but I could tell when I left the theater that night that it was mine. My certainty wasn't because of her behavior but the simple knowledge that it was MY part. I hadn't been acting on that stage. I was sharing myself through someone else's words. Thalia, the muse of comedy, would never let that part go to anyone else.

When I was offered the role I told Dee, the director, "I might as well warn you now. My mom's in a hospice in Odessa and she's dying. We don't know how long it will take but that's going to complicate your schedule." She, in her wonderful way, said, "I figured something like that was going on. Don't worry. We'll work around it. I want you for this part." At the same time, Shannen was offered a role in the third scene as one of the principal interviewees.

Mom passed away a week later. I'm sad that she wasn't able to be in the front row on opening night to see TWO of her girls on stage together. In my more maudlin moments I comfort myself by thinking that she was on the front row in Heaven although I really don't believe that any more than I believe in Greek Muses. I think in Heaven, being with our Creator pretty much eclipses our interest in what's happening back on earth. But since nobody's ever come back to tell me for sure, I figure the possibility of me being wrong is enough that I don't mind the occasional comfortable delusion.

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