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A Stage Story

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First grade.  We had just moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, leaving behind a suburban metropolitan area with a higher-than-normal crime rate for a rural community based around a battlefield where over 50,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in three days of fighting during July of 1863.  Being any older than 6 would have made this a shock to my system, but my spongy brain kept absorbing information and took it all in stride.  I adapted well and began excelling in school.

Spring of that school year and the music teacher, Mrs. D., was busy organizing the annual Fine Arts production.  Mrs. D., I realize now, was a cliche.  Her long, flowing, graying hair was a holdover from her glory days in the ‘60s, where I’m sure she experimented with a few mind-altering substances, some of which stuck with her.  She kept her hair in a huge bun on the back her head, a #2 pencil the only thing securing these generous strands from the floor.  One of the most remarkable memories I have of her was coming into class one day and finding her sitting on her stool, her hawk-like nose turned down towards her guitar, face obscured by her hair (no longer in a bun) humming softly to herself.  It turned she had written a song for Princess Diana, who had died a few days earlier.  She proceeded to play and sing her ode to the great humanitarian.  All I can remember thinking was that it sounded almost exactly like ‘Candle in the Wind,’ Elton John’s (recycled) tribute for Diana.  I believe it actually used the same metaphor, Diana as a flame in a frightful gale, to get the message across.  It was a surreal experience.

She was our director for these Fine Arts programs.  The premise was that the first and fourth graders would collaborate to produce an original piece of theatre incorporating music, sets, costumes, and even a bit of history.  Ours turned out to be a Time Travel piece, complete with a prehistoric rendering of the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs.  This was the climax of the show.  I, being a youngster, would be out of harm’s way for this final act and instead play a part in the middle, when the two intrepid temporal wanderers visit Medieval England.  I was to play a six-year-old Don Quixote, a knight errant in a small village.  My mother, a woman who devoted herself first and foremost to the raising of her children and the many skills this involved, set to creating the most magnificent suit of armor made from cloth ever seen.  She started with my old Batman pajamas, then sewed velcro on to attach the armor pieces.  These she had sewn from a shiny metallic fabric and stuffed with cotton to appear bulkier.  We purchased a plastic helmet and large broadsword to complete it.  I looked magnificent.

Rehearsals began with me walking through the scene, a sort of background figure uninvolved and undistracted by two twentieth-century ten-year-olds coming through our village.  We rehearsed many times, figuring out my path across the stage and my many motivations.  I was recently back from slaying a dragon and being a knight newly unemployed, needed to find more work.  I was bowing to the many ladies onstage as they walked pass, hoping to catch one’s eye with my chivalric display.  I was concerned with the sharpness of my sword and needed to find the blacksmith, else I might be caught unawares by any number of bandits with a dull blade.  I was six, mind you, and having the time of my life.

This is the first time I remember being onstage.  My imagination was engaged, my creativity was harnessed and felt free to live and love in this strange world we created on a 20×40 wooden platform at the far end of the school’s gymnasium.  The night of the production came and I was nervous.  I think peed about twelve times before going onstage, but once the lights came up, once the boundary between the real of before and the real of the now was established, I felt right at home.  My moment came and I was ushered onstage by one of the parents in the wings.  The lights came up.  I was a knight in medieval times.  A flower-seller came by hawking roses.  On impulse, I picked one up, smelled it and gave it to a damsel nearby, bowing as she continued past.    I was, in theatre parlance, “in the moment.”  My brief scene finished, I wandered offstage and got out of the knight costume, which was sweated through in those brief moments under the lights.  I changed and found my parents and we all enjoyed the asteroid finale together.

Being onstage became a requirement after that.  I was one of those lucky kids who found a way into our “gifted” program at school.  My teacher, Mrs. Schultz, indulged our creativity to no end. Near the end of fifth grade, we put on a very revised version of The Tempest, me in the title role of Prospero.  I don’t remember much aside from the extremely heavy velvet cloak, once again sewn by my mother and one particular incident.  It being Shakespeare and us being eleven, we had our scripts in hand as we played out the last of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.  The kid playing Ariel, Prospero’s fairy minion, had somehow not shown up to rehearsal at all and was still in the production.  So we began our scene, and he was on the wrong page.  Very un-selfconsciously I took his script from him, went to the right page and kept going.  This action perhaps added a bit more flame to Prospero’s anger, which I think made the scene better in the end.

More plays came and went and I was introduced to the magic of the musical throughout high school, taking part in Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma!, and the prerequisite of every burgeoning theatre major, Guys & Dolls. I learned very quickly that I could dance, a revelation used to my extreme advantage in wooing women during my teens.  I found I was very happy to entertain with my self-cultivated “moves,” knowing full-well they were ridiculous and awful.  However, to those without a Y-chromosome, it somehow also came off as “cute.”

There are many great memories from these years, but one stuck with me.  After Guys & Dolls, as we were making our way through the crowd, a woman stopped me and said, “Do you have plans to continue in this?”

I mumbled something in reply.  “Hrgm.”

“I think you should.”

I have no idea who this woman was or what her qualifications were, but it sowed a seed in my brain.  Four months later, I sat in the backyard of my house and told my mom I was not healthy enough to go to college.  There had been difficulties with some health problems over the summer.   I planned to go to Macalester College in Minnesota, but found that these latent issues prevented me from traveling so far away.  I enrolled in Gettysburg College and began my year with that old familiar friend, Acting I.

I immediately excelled in the class and found I wanted more training than Gettysburg could offer.  I applied to schools almost exclusively in New York City, knowing it was the hub of the industry and a place I always dreamed of living.  I began preparing monologues, bought train tickets for auditions, and wrestled myself into acting school for the next three years.  There I learned everything, if I really wanted to, but that is the hard part about being an actor.  It is an inherently personal and highly self-motivated practice, and one only gets as much as one puts in.  I encountered teachers who taught me nothing, who gave me creative blocks I’m still working to dismantle and I encountered working professionals who taught me more in three months than my sophomore and junior years combined.

I only encountered two teachers who were willing to push me past my comfort zone.  One was my fantastic Voice & Speech Practicum teacher, Barbara.  This woman is the size of a willow wand, but breathes the fire of dragons if properly motivated.  Voice & Speech Practicum, as the name suggests, is a practical application of the technique learned in the sophomore and junior years.  This technique allows one to be understood in a large auditorium without blowing one’s voice out every night.  Practicum took this further, engaging challenging text with breath to help the actor find his or her inspiration.  At one point, I was asked to get up and deliver a poem we had all been working on.  Barbara’s lesson for the day was being “Ready,” (the capital R is needed) so I walked to the front of the studio, stood there and started speaking.

“Stop!” she yelled.  “You’re not Ready.  Breathe.”

I breathed.  I started again.

“NO!  You’re not READY!  Breathe.  Just stand there.  Breathe.”

I did.  An amazing thing happened.  I was relaxed in front of people for the very first time, completely conscious of where I was, but ok with it.  I was breathing.  I started the poem and my voice was never richer.

The other teacher was the director of my last performance in college, where I played a 45-year-old doctor visiting an estate in Russia, in a play called A Month in the Country.  She taught me to stop acting and start living onstage.  During the latter part of the rehearsal period, I was performing the last piece of a scene where I was left alone onstage and had to confess a very truthful piece of information to the audience.  This was one of my character’s only honest moments and I wanted to get it right.  I delivered the line and walked offstage.

“Come back!” she said from the audience.

“You want me to do it again?”

“Yes,” she said.  “That was good.  Now do it for real this time.”

Something clicked.  I had an incredibly successful run, a fantastic reception from my teachers and I began my journey into the truth of being the stage demands.

The journey is still happening, though I gave up auditioning and its seemingly fruitless pursuits.  I will start on an acting class again soon, I suppose because it is the place where I can break down my own fears.  It is the best way I know to get to know myself better.  Even if I never appear onstage again, I will still take acting class, because there is such pleasure in exploring fear and desire in a completely made-up context.  The world is only richer because theatre exists and even if my only contribution for the rest of my life is be honest with only my classmates watching, I will feel I have achieved something.

Written by Seth James

January 19, 2011 at 7:34 pm