This week’s question comes from A.V. Club Editor Sean O’Neal:
What’s your most memorable involvement in a childhood theatrical production?
My first (and last) children’s theater gig was in the eighth grade, when my rapidly dropping voice (and tendency toward unrepentant hamminess) helped me land the role of Smaug in a CT production of The Hobbit. This turned out to be something of a mixed blessing: On the plus side, I got free rein to run all over the tunnels and backstage areas of the venerable Indiana Theater, a big old classic-style movie palace that was one of the few real wonders of my childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana. On the down side, it wasn’t like there was copious money lying around for elaborate dragon costumes or CGI; instead, some presumably well-meaning parent rustled up a Chinese dragon costume, the kind you might see in a parade, to serve as our underwhelming stand-in for Tolkien’s great wyrm. (Don’t pity me, though; pity the two kids who didn’t get any lines at all, and were simply cast to crawl around behind me, playing the dragon’s butt.) Like any kids’ theater production, it was a time-consuming, frequently embarrassing affair. But I did get the ultimate reward for my troubles: Multiple people coming up to me in the lobby after the show to tell me that my roaring had made their kids cry in the middle of a performance. It still brings a little bit of draconic warmth to my heart.
Like most parents, my mom has a handful of stories about young me that she loves to tell over and over and over again. Every holiday, if I’m around and we happen to hear “The Twelve Days Of Christmas,” it’s time to be regaled with the tale of my sassy “performance” in my elementary school’s generic Christmas musical. I absolutely hated “Twelve Days Of Christmas,” and as chance would have it, I got stuck as one of the kids having to dress up in some elf outfit or whatever sitting on stage trying to remember every weird archaic gift in the song’s monotonous verses. Apparently, I didn’t try very hard to hide just how much I despised singing it and spent the whole time making exaggerated irritated faces. Apparently, my harrumphing got a lot of laughs from the audience, or at least that’s what my mom likes to say.
I was a high school drama-club nerd, and after a few bit parts as a freshman, my specialty seemed to be the weirdo second lead, paired with my still-best friend, Mary, who would usually star. Happy to say that these performances are lost to the sands of time, so no one can ever blackmail me with my woeful performance of Evilene’s “No Bad News” from The Wiz (Mary was Dorothy), or my Mammy Yokum in Lil’ Abner (Mary was Daisy Mae) showing up on YouTube. Undaunted, I even went ahead and tried out for some productions in college, somehow getting cast as a dance-hall girl in Sweet Charity one summer. The “Hey, Big Spender” dance was a bit risqué, to say the least, and on opening night, somehow my mother got seated right in front of my thrusting-against-a-chair dance (sample lyric: “I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see”). My embarrassed, unprofessional giggling mercifully signified the end of my life on the stage.
Perhaps the only thing that was not a statewide embarrassment about my high school was its choir program, which pulled off bizarrely ambitious musicals year after year to great success. My senior year, our choir director attempted Titanic, a three-hour epic with a massive cast and a hydraulic-powered stage that simulated the ship’s great descent. I was there despite my lifelong distaste for musical theater because most class periods were spent playing euchre with the other slack-offs there for an easy A. But because “Titanic” was so sprawling, I somehow ended up with the semi-prominent role of first officer Murdoch, the dipshit who actually steers the ship into the iceberg. The choir director wisely decided to cut most of my moments from the play, but a few of them proved impossible to extricate from the musical, which is why asshole friends from high school still quietly sing “Aye, aye, Captain” to me.
I never did theater, but this is adjacent. My high school required community service, so the summer before my junior year, I was a counselor at a day camp for junior-high kids at my church. Even though I had to get on stage with my fellow counselors every morning and dance to Michael W. Smith’s “Seed To Sow,” it actually wasn’t bad. There was a theme every day that the counselors chose, and I picked music. I was dying to start a band at the time, so I convinced my musician friends to record a song for my theme day. Even though we were personally listening to a steady diet of Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Napalm Death, and the like, we produced a deeply embarrassing dollop of treacle called “Confusion Of Faith,” which we performed under our joke-band moniker, 12 Inch Breath Mint. Out of respect for my friends’ dignity, I won’t name them here, but I’ll say one of them had gotten really into hip-hop, and he insisted on a rap breakdown in the middle—in which he and I trade verses about Jesus. (I also played keyboards, poorly.) It is unspeakably terrible, but it was a hit at the camp. And a year later, I was in a “real” band with my friends, so “Confusion Of Faith” was a secret success.
While I was in a few plays and musicals in high school, I spent most of my drama-club years working on “set.” This was the group of mostly artsy students who constructed the walls, panels, treads, risers, and decorations to bring a play to life. It was almost more like a woodworking club than anything, and because we needed ventilation when spray-painting and sawing, we had access to the school’s loading dock. This was a large open area behind the theater where trucks unloaded food for the cafeteria, and we loved being back there for the simple reason that it was off-limits to all students except the drama set crew. Even better was the basement. Oh, the basement. This was a place most students didn’t know existed, much less visited. A secret elevator on the loading dock took us down there, to a treasury of Kettle Moraine High School history and paraphernalia. My friends and I spent hours in its dark confines, a winding labyrinth of teetering grade books, boxes of Kettle Moraine High School-branded clothing, trophies from the ’80s, old-fashioned desks and chairs sitting under years of dust, and the set decorations and props of past plays. I spent leisurely hours going through old school records and grade books. For some reason parts of the basement were sequestered in chain-linked fence with padlocks, but we could climb over the fencing to reach the cache within. It was a creepy, exhilarating place to be. I think the only stuff we ever took were some very cool ’80s women’s basketball T-shirts we liked the designs of; wearing one became a signal that you were in, or in with, the drama-club set crew. And now that I think about it, I realize how much of these escapades scan with my future as a journalism major with a great love of spending long periods of time looking through old records—not to mention my lifelong love of sneaking into places I’m not supposed to be.
When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first prop cigarette to your last matinee. And because you’re so high on the spirit of theatre after your high school’s final performance of West Side Story, the entire cast—Jets and Sharks alike—storms the main drag of their hometown, miming their way through one last rumble in the vacant lot between the Stillwater Grill and the Hungry Howie’s. And then the actual, non-grease-painted cops show up, and they have neither the humor, nor the patience, of Officer Krupke—but they do have a tip from someone in the area who didn’t recognize the Jerome Robbins poses mixed in with your faux-roughhousing. And they express this in a very stern dressing down, weighted with extra guilt because they should be following up on the report of a lost child at Meijer, but instead they’re chastising 20-odd International Thespian Society members for mimicking the hijinks of all-singing, all-dancing mid-century hoodlums. Should’ve listened more closely to the words of the song you’ve been performing day in and day out for a semester: “Just play it cool, boy—real cool.” At least you got a funny story out of it.
I spent high school running sound for various plays—which, because we were not the school from Fame, meant I mostly sat at a card table just off stage, where I would plug my Discman directly into the PA and cue up various effect CDs I gathered from the library. One year, however, we did a special “in the round” performance in the cafeteria, which meant blaring effects through my own, personal, Rage Against The Machine-stickered boombox. The play was a murder-mystery farce about a guy who goes missing, leaving his family and friends to hilariously devolve into accusations and paranoid cover-ups. Here I will reiterate that the whole play is predicated on no one having any idea where this guy is, with the punchline to the entire thing being that he suddenly calls them up, after all that chaos, to explain that he’s just running late. Unfortunately, at the very moment I was supposed to play the ringing telephone sound effect that would end the show, my boombox decided to up and die. And so the actors froze, waiting for a telephone call that never came; even me shouting “ring, ring” from the back of the room didn’t clue them in. Finally, one of the stars just improvised something like, “Hmm, I wonder what happened to Charlie. Well, I guess I’ll call him!”—an ad-lib that instantly negated all of the preceding 90 minutes. And so the play ended not with a laugh, but an audible “…Huh?” from the audience, the actors all refused to speak to me for the rest of the school year, and my technical theater career was as dead as my shitty stereo.
Like a lot of youngest siblings (or only children, somewhat combined in my case given my siblings are a decade older), I grew up convinced a life on stage was my true calling, thanks to well-honed years of doing literally anything for attention. That quickly faded my senior year of high school, when a fellow actor informed me the day before opening night that I had a habit of silently mouthing along to the lines of all my co-stars, but by then the damage had been done. Specifically, the damage to my body: See, in eighth grade I was cast as one of the young pickpockets in the Whitefish Bay Community Theater production of Oliver! Each night of the week, I would excitedly head in to the theater for rehearsal, where they had built out a big semicircle extension of the stage by placing massive folding tables on top of one another. Unfortunately for me, the clever adults in charge had failed to secure said tables, meaning one night when we tromped out there for another round of “Consider Yourself,” the top table slipped off, flipping over into the front seats. I was smack in the middle, and plunged headfirst into the metal legs sticking upright. Shockingly, I didn’t die, though I did badly bruise nearly every body part, including my head. That director must’ve thanked his lucky fucking stars every day thereafter that my parents aren’t the litigious type.