The fireworks have begun. Occasional detonations up and down the block. Jasper hates them. He will not leave my side. Thunder he can take; my guitar playing unnerves him not. (Which makes him unique.) The sudden screech of a bottle rocket, however, makes him nervous. Last year on the fourth I put him in the garage, but that wasn’t good enough – he tried to get into my car, as I discovered the next day when the sunlight hit the scratches.
This is his worst time of the year. Unexplained large ambient noises without context: dog hell.
Today was the last day of week two of summer school, so Gnat’s drama class put on its play. Her poster:
The singular form is a bit misleading; there were four princesses. One king, though. Age six. A boy-king, then. Not like there isn’t precedent. Gnat was one of the Ladybugs, and I could tell that didn’t sit entirely well, but she volunteered, and at least she had a line.
The summer school program had several drama classes, and since the plays were rather brief, they all took place in the same small auditorium between 11:30 and noon. The room was packed. There were no windows. There was no air conditioning. It was like a boxcar baking in a Texas trainyard, but of course the show must go on. (Why? I’ve never figured that one out. I mean, the show should go on, if that’s a sensible decision, but must? The founding adage of the theater world seems based on a reluctance to refund the ticket price.) Gnat’s line was not delivered with the emotions and projection demonstrated in practice, but that’s okay. There are worse things than having a bad actor for a child. Oh, no! My daughter cannot convincingly fake a range of emotions – however will she make her way in the world? I dated a lot of actresses in my early days. Most were charming but fickle. It’s not rare when you’re 20 to want to be someone else, but I often wondered if I was dealing with the real person, the next role, or a fragment left over from a high school play.
I should talk. Somewhere there’s a photo of me in grade-school summer theater. I played “Bottom” in Midsummer Night’s Eve, which allowed me to say “ass” in front of adults without consequence. The next year I tried out for the role of “Tommy” in a college production of “Ah, Wilderness.” (Little Country Theater, NDSU, May, 1969) I got the part, and did the entire show without my glasses, so the memories are literally all a blur. But I saved everything. Including my notices, of course.
I was the first actor on stage. In the runthrough before opening night I tripped on the steps and went head-first through the door. Before the curtain went up the next night I practiced the move, over and over - run to steps, get hat off the rack, turn around, deliver line:
I’m pretty sure this is one of the actors in the play. And I’m pretty sure he was also a cartoonist for the local paper; he was always drawing things in the dressing rooms. There was a big white sheet on which everyone made a mark of some sort, and I remember a prominent motto: ZIP TO ZAP. A few months before Woodstock, in the heady spring of 1969, collegians descended on the small town of Zap, probably because the name had a groovy R. Crumb-type vibe, and possibly because they knew it would filled with Squares. (Zip they did.) Being ten, I was not part of any of this, but I do remember that everyone in the company, from the director to the star to the indispensable technical people (anyone with six seconds of experience in the theater knows that it’s all just lumps of meat shouting in the dark on an empty stage without the technical people) treated me as an equal. It was a wonderful experience, and I think the review speaks for itself: play enjoyed by all.
It gave me a great love of the theater. Which was ruined four years later, in junior high. I tried out for the junior high play, but was relegated to the lowly status of a Townsperson. (Line: “We could get up a posse and follow them.”) The lead role went to the most popular kid in the class, and the sidekick / comic relief went to the fellow widely regarded as the class clown. (Stunned, I tried to ingratiate myself with the Popular Kids by memorizing a book of insults – a white version of Yo Mama jokes, written by a fellow named Louis Safian. (I bought it at Dirty Ernie’s, the unofficial name of the second-hand paperback store on the 8th street south.) The lines had punch and snark; they were crisp, well-balanced, and I got a reputation. But not as a joke-teller: as a put-down artist. I will never forget the day the BMOC actually took me aside and told me I was funny. Granted, it was outside the junior high, where no one could see, but still.
My entire choice of career is probably due to that book, and the effect it had on my lowly Townsperson status.
Of course, someone discovered my secret. Another kid got a copy of the book, but it was a month later; the play was over, and the zings had less effect in biology class. He also had poor delivery. Nevertheless, I couldn’t keep a rep as a Wit; I wasn’t naturally funny like the generally recognized Class Clown (who, by some odd turn of events, was the younger brother of the lead actor in the college play) and I didn’t travel in popular circles. In high school I shunned theater for speech and debate – more immediate, more control – and I ended up being elected to speak at the graduation ceremony, an honor I repaid with an insufferably pretentious address. Never acted again. Unless you count the TV shows I did in the 80s.
Which I do, incidentally. I’ve finished transferring the old tapes to DV, and as soon as I get more bandwidth, up they go. They’re remarkable, really: a local TV station actually spent time and money on these things, and they culminated in “Bad Trips,” a long-lost pilot episode we pitched to PBS. They turned it down.
Because, well, I suck at acting.
So if I can spare my daughter that, fine. If not, I can sympathize.
After the play all the classes disgorged into the hallway and queued for frozen treats. It’s the tradition of the last day of class: lunch, ruined in advance. The fellow behind the mike asked the same question: WHAT DAY IS IT?
And the kids responded
Ice thurs cream day day because half the kids had never been to the program, and figured Thursday was a sensible response, and the other half knew what lay ahead. Gnat got an ice cream bad, and we all walked back to the car. To Mommy’s car. They were off for a few days. I have something to do Friday that keeps me here.
She leaned out the window with a sad face and waved goodbye. I watched the car until it vanished from sight, and remembered what I’d said to my wife that morning: don’t get into a double-fatal accident, because if you two are gone I’ll have to kill myself and then the dog will outlive us all, which is pathetic.
She’d rolled her eyes.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said.
New Quirk, and a Fouth of July Diner. Use the link below for the nifty art-enhanced version. Subscribers will get it automatically via iTunes if the bandwidth's blown. I'll post the MP3 link on Monday when the bandwidth resets.