Friday, December 4, 2009

Theatah Stories

From the time I was in fifth grade and played The Narrator in a production of James and the Giant Peach (a role originated by Brando), I wanted to be in plays. My acting career, though, had a few notable false starts.

In middle school, I croaked through an audition for L'il Abner and was one out of, well, one students who wasn't at least made an alternate. (Perhaps my membership in AV club made Mrs. Schneider feel less guilty for cutting me--at least I'd be working the lights).

After a few years of singing lessons and the re-summoning of my crushed, post-Abner courage, I had a two-line solo at a spring concert in high school. My pseudo-debut.

"Maria," I shouted, beginning the song of the same name during my choir's medley of West Side Story songs. Nevermind that I was no Gangland Romeo: I gave it my all. "The most beautiful sound I've ev-ah hea-hd. Ma- Reeeeee- A."

My character was a street-tough from ethnic New York, longing to bed this new bodacious woman he'd met; I, however, sounded like a British castrati singing to his nursemaid.

(Fine, so maybe he sounded like that, too.)

About the same time as my mellifluous "Maria," I tried out for a play mainly in order to hang out with a girl I liked, Dana (I just met a girl named. . .). Even though she was the star-actress in school, she decided not to try-out and, of course, this was the one play I got into.

It seemed I'd be spending another winter cruelly un-girled.

When I think about high school, I'm amazed by how many of my decisions came about in this feminine-induced fashion. Because of them, I tried out for plays, played certain sports, bathed more thoroughly.

In fact, sometimes I think I study English because of the particular cuteness of one girl, Sally.

Warning: I am about to examine my life-path and trace who-I-am-now back to a series of arbitrary decisions I made when I was 16. This will have the worn-out tone of "What if that hadn't happened exactly the way it happened? Where would I be now?"

This sort of logic can almost always be refuted and, unless people have deep knowledge of String Theory, belongs only in vague conversations with the recently redeemed or with fate-obsessed adherents of E-harmony. But I can't help myself. I like the tracing; I like the hunt for my origins--probably because of something that happened to me when I was 8.

So, I was standing outside my Sophomore year English class, which I didn't love, and I saw Sally drinking from the water fountain. Her bookbag was huge for her, which was cute; her last name was styled onto it in huge block letters, which was cute. She was super-cute, which was cute.

Thus began a two-year, mostly-unspoken crush. I knew very little about Sally, but I could glean, mostly from hearsay during choir, that she liked to write and got great grades. Going into senior year, then, I was ready to make my push for her. Would I ask her on a date or get her a card or even say hello? No. I would sign up for as many English classes as possible. I begged into the honors class I thought she'd be in and added a Shakespeare seminar for good measure.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero declares,

O God of love! I know he doth deserve
As much as may be yielded to a man

Yes, I thought. Indeed I didth! And yet Sally was in neither of my classes. It turned out she belonged to a secret cabal of English scholars to which I couldn't pretend. They would be studying in England in March; I, un-girled, would be reading dozens of books to scrape by in the double course-load.

That first day of school was bleak, but there have been collateral benefits.

Since then, I've looked back on that moment at the water fountain and those romantic enrollments as the reason I've gone on to study English. Taking the two classes convinced me I was a word-guy, that I liked arguing, interpreting, complicating, bloviating, and being in college for 10 years to learn how to do those things.

And I do like them. So I can only thank my lucky stars that Sally wasn't an Astronomy person. I've never really enjoyed Space, but I might have gone there (twice) for cute bangs.

After the initial disappointment of senior year and Sally, I moved on to Dana. In high school, I was serially-serious about girls and never really without a love-interest. That same attraction to melodrama also led me to try out for the school-play, notably called Compulsion.

I was to portray the stodgy older brother of Big-Man-on-Campus, Trey Stewart, in the Depression-era show. I practiced for months for my big line.

During a party scene, I was supposed to say, derisively, "Russian Jews."

During that time, I could be seen around school mumbling, trying out different inflections.

Russian Jews? Russian Jews! Russian Jews?!?!

Three days before the play, though, Trey, 16, decided to go for a few beers at the local bowling alley. He was suspended and, without its star, the show did not go on.

I had to wait another year and a half before I had lines again, this time in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I'd gone to the theater that summer hoping for an ushering job, but the director had me audition by singing "Happy Birthday."

For the part of Napthali, one of the twelve brothers, it was down to me and a woman named Melody Stankiewicz. Despite my gender advantage and the fact that Melody's extreme vibrato made her head shake like a can of paint in a mixer, she scored the role.

When a better part opened up for her, though, I was their man. Happy Birthday to me!

Opening night arrived. During the first song, I was supposed to jump out from behind a Pyramid and introduce myself: "Napthali!"

I could be seen around the theatre mumbling.

Napthali. NAPTHALI!

Just as I heard my cue, though, I tripped on a styrofoam camel and swallowed my one and only line. I'd done plays to feel like a more exciting person, to be noticed a little bit, but, when my time in the lights finally came, I couldn't even say my own name.

As far as theatre success went, it felt--woe was me--like I just couldn't get over the initial hump.

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