Most of the people close to me know that I am not a fan of children, so it may come as a surprise to some of my friends that I’m about 7 weeks into teaching a 10 week drama class to a handful of 9-year-olds. While it’s been an interesting growth experience, to say that I’m excited for it to be over would be a gross understatement. But, on the bright-side I made a kid cry on Tuesday and it got me thinking a lot about theater and its role in my life.
The opportunity fell into my lap when a friend whose job it is to find after-school club volunteers asked me if I’d help out. Two hours, once a week. Even I could handle that. And aside from that, theater changed my life. It’s my most cherished hobby and favorite past-time. I was so painfully quiet and awkward as a kid, I was useless in sports, but there was a place for me in theater. It’s been a meaningful experience to help pass the torch, 9-year-olds and all.
It also helps that the kids taking it are pants-peeingly excited about being up on stage. So, how did it all seemingly go awry? In the beginning, my plan was to teach very basic principles primarily through improv games, and possibly have them work a monologue to perform at the club showcase that happens at the end of the 10 weeks. They wanted to do a play. The club leader (plus assistant) who teaches drama in the fall does a little play with them and they wouldn’t shut up about it. In the end, I decided we could potentially get more done if I gave in to their [stupid] demands (they begged before, during and after every activity). I probably should have put my foot down, but It would make my lesson planning nearly non-existent and all of the kids had been in a drama club performance before. I never figured it would be easy, but at the very least I thought it would be doable. I was dealing with less than half the number of students they normally have during the fall and I’d been wanting to adapt my favorite Grimm Fairy Tale (The Tale of One Who Traveled to Find What Shivering Meant) into a children’s theater piece anyway. I decided I could make it work. I spent a day writing a short script from scratch. I figured there would be some issues with the fact that there was one lead. Everyone would want the part, but this is theater. It’s a lesson that has to be learned one way or another if any of them want to keep at it when they get older. I anticipated unrest and the solution I decided on was to write the show with the known participants in mind. There would be one lead and the three other kids taking drama would each have two characters. The first wrench in my plan was that two extra kids showed up for the auditions. And in the classical theater fashion I declared, “No matter! Sally forth!”
We did some quick cold-read auditions and cast the show. I wasn’t that blown away by anyone in particular. Even after having some time to familiarize themselves with the script there was only one kid that emoted. At all. She got the part. The kids, being the tactless assholes kid are, didn’t take it too well. There was gloating…there were tears. Neither the have nor the have-nots were blameless. We had a discussion about it, the dust settled and we hit the ground running. Fast forward a few rehearsals. Goddamn kids. Herding cats comes to mind, but it was no worse than I’d anticipated
….. Until the lead misses a rehearsal because of another extracurricular commitment. Now, this play is not an important play by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not a story that needs to be told. It’s not an extension of my ego or a bucket-list item or a particularly cleverly crafted story for that matter. But to the cast members who were there and were learning their parts and who wanted her part so badly the envy was palpable, it was a big deal. It was a big deal to me because I’m director and SM, taking down detailed blocking notes to relay to her next week when we’re already behind. So, it was frustrating, but we got through the rehearsal. She knew we only had a few left and I was sure she wouldn’t miss any others. Until she misses rehearsal the next week. So, now I’m in an uncomfortable position, but I know exactly what needs to be done and I put the wheels in motion. We need a new lead because I have no assurance that our current one can be there for these last few critical rehearsals, and we’re doing this play as readers theater (they’ve been having enough trouble with their own blocking, let-alone learning someone else’s). We have another discussion, do another quick cold read with two girls who say that they’d still like to be the lead, and jump right into rehearsal again. The plan is to compose an email to her mom and explain the situation when I get home. We have 25 minutes left of rehearsal, when in walks our former lead, completely unaware of what’s just transpired. I try to kindly explain over, around, and in spite of the other kids blurting the short version at her: “We’re not doing a play!” and “We traded you parts!”
All in all, she was sort of a champ about it. She was crying pretty hard, but insisted that there was something in her eye. She stayed and after the explanation we forged ahead again and finished up with notes. The kids leave, I gather my stuff, and head out to let my friend know what happened so she’s not blind-sided by calls from parents or whatever. No sooner had I briefed her, but who comes marching up to the school doors, but the kid’s mom.
And although I’d anticipated it, although I knew my decision was perfectly defensible, this is the part that annoyed me the most: she kept asking me what she should tell her kid. She kept saying that her kid had worked hard to learn her lines and had “earned that part.” First of all, bitch, I don’t know what you should tell your kid. I obviously do not have the same “mama-bear” impulses as you have toward her. I didn’t push that kid out of my vagina or make its embryo listen to Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest hits or whatever the fuck you’re into. Your child is obviously bright and I get the feeling she’s a go-getter with a lot of potential…that doesn’t make her any less of a pain in my ass when she takes the group on tangents outside of the script or changes cue lines on her cast-mates or insists that her character needs to get married at the end or have a fancy dress. Honestly, my line of advice when it comes to getting your child into theater would probably be entirely different from what a mom would say. Because most moms I know think their kids are the shit. Most moms think their kids are special and I guess that’s true – at least in their own minds. I, on the other hand, only have the impulse to tell them how fucked up life is.
I would tell your kid that this is not the last time you will cry over this shit.
I would tell your kid that this is not the last time you will be rejected.
I would tell your kid that you will work SO hard, you will bear every part of your soul, and people will dismiss you instantaneously. Sometimes for reasons that were beyond your control. Sometimes because they don’t like your interpretation of the material. Sometimes because they just don’t like your face.
I would tell your kid that no one cares what you’re up against. The vast majority of your audience won’t get to hear the wonderfully crafted excuses you have for not memorizing your lines or knowing your blocking or having a less than stellar Irish accent or having a lot going on in your life right now. The only thing they’ll see is a lackluster, self-indulgent performance.
I would tell your kid that she is SO loved by her family, but to the rest of the world she is completely replaceable.
I would tell your kid that you’re not going to enjoy theater if you’re primarily in it for the attention and the glamour because you won’t get to pick out what you wear or the phrasing of your lines or the normalcy of your hair. You look and feel fuckin’ weird most of the time.
I would tell your kid that you don’t earn your role at the audition. You earn your role every day you show up on time, by coming prepared for rehearsal, researching your part, learning your lines and acknowledging that no matter how infinitesimal or grandiose your part, there is a small platoon of other artists who are also pouring their heart and soul into this and they depend on you. I would tell her that if you keep at it long enough, you’ll get booed. It feels terrible.
I would tell your kid that what you do on stage won’t matter. It’s self-indulgent and escapism is for pussies and everyone is too desensitized to have a cathartic experience anymore. You’re not going to cure cancer – you’re the person who gets in front of people and plays a glorified version of a child’s game. But I would also tell your kid, that sometimes it will matter. You’ll unwittingly be part of a force that changes someones perspective or bolsters them up or lets them know they are not alone when they desperately need it.
I would tell your kid that making a crowd laugh is like riding a fucking unicorn across a rainbow while eating cookie dough ice cream. I’d forego everything else for that feeling.
I would tell her that you will have real power. There are times when the audience will hang on your every word and listen breathlessly because to miss even the slightest raise of your eyebrow would squander a moment they know can never happen again.
I would tell your kid that over time, the combination of characters collected inside of you will make you better than you ever could have been on your own.
I would tell your kid that I regret not starting it sooner and not doing it more frequently, because there is something so wonderfully fun and fulfilling about performing. I never feel like I can dial it in or that I have a handle on it. It’s never easy, and it keeps me growing and reevaluating myself.
There’s a part of me (the selfish bitch who just wants this to be over) that wants the kid to quit. She’s annoying and it’s difficult to get her focused. I waste a lot of time listening to her suggestions and having to politely dismiss them. But there’s a part of me that knows she’ll be better for it. There’s a part of me that was impressed by her insistence on participating in rehearsal last week instead of hiding in the bathroom. The one thing I’m sure of is that the show will go on whether she decides to or not.