By Brian Shea
[Editor’s Note: Aaron R. Davis is busy thinking of excuses to get out of spending Christmas with his loved ones, so today we bring you a special guest column from Brian Shea.]
I took a playwriting class during my junior year of college. For our final project, we had to write and present a one-act play. We didn’t have to worry about a set or stage directions. We just had to recruit some people to sit on the stage and read our play.
So I convinced a quartet of friends to read the parts in my play. I just had to sit in the back of the room and watch.
The class took place in the first trimester of the school year, which meant the final readings took place in mid-November in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. It was fucking cold. There was probably a bunch of snow on the ground.
I distinctly remember wearing a t-shirt underneath a heavy sweater. Normally, that kind of detail would escape my memory, but the experience scared me so bad, I sweated a ton. I could have probably wrung out the shirt when it was finished. You don’t forget things like that.
I really had no reason to worry. People liked my play, which was a comedy. I wrote one of the few comedies in the class. One person actually wrote a “should I leave the farm for the big city” play, which I guess could be classified as a comedy since it was so bad I wanted to laugh. But I digress to address my recent predicament.
A flyer came home from my daughter’s elementary school in early October looking for youngsters to fill out the cast of the high school play. The director, who we know fairly well, was putting on Miracle on 34th Street and wanted to turn the production into a school-district wide event. We live in a pretty small school district so it made a lot of sense.
We couldn’t make the original meeting and, by the time we got in touch with the director, he only needed people for crowd scenes. All of you should come take part, he urged. So my wife and I agreed to lend a hand and take part in a few scenes. Two weeks later, I found sweating through my shirt just like that day in college. Except this time I had to stand on stage and speak. I somehow inherited the role of Mr. Macy.
I guess, in a way, I knew I would end up filling a role once the director announced that some cast members had to drop out. My wife and daughter both ended up with speaking roles as well. We had already made a small commitment and wouldn’t let the performance struggle just because we suddenly got shy. I just needed to keep one thought going in my head: I can do this.
I kept that thought going through dress rehearsals and all the way through opening night. I had never really acted before – other than acting like a grownup for the past 20 years or pretending I knew what I was talking about in general conversation – but something felt right.
I struggled at first even though it didn’t show. The director sometimes singled me out for praise, especially for how well I projected my voice. I have seven older siblings – that just comes naturally from trying to be heard above the crowd at family parties. But I worried about succeeding beyond the volume. Would I get any laughs? Would I sound authentic? Would I remember my lines?
That last question bothered me the most. I had just around 20 lines, three of them simply being “Yes,” so I shouldn’t have worried. When I practiced my parts alone on my commute to and from work, I found I would stumble over one line or another. That scared me.
Then I got out on that stage, the light hit me and I looked at the high school students playing opposite me. If they could pull this off with all the lines they had, I could too. I only messed up once in three performances. People may not have noticed, but it burned me up. The feeling went away, however, when one of the students whispered in my ear just as we stepped backstage.
“You fucked that up.”
I felt like a real actor, especially since we had a bunch of screw-ups that day, most of which people managed to pull off without disrupting the play in a way the audience would notice. I also realized that these kids didn’t see me as the father of some elementary school student filling out the background. I was one of them. And I didn’t even have to buy them beer to convince them I was cool.
I certainly enjoyed having an auditorium full of people – and the attendance was fantastic – looking at me and only me, but I especially enjoyed getting to know and working with the high school students on the cast and crew.
We all know stories about the bad things that go on with teenagers. Every local newspaper has stories about the court cases and drug problems and concerns about school performance.
I can’t say that every bad thing will go away or that the schools are perfect, but I do know with complete certainty that my town has cool, smart, talented students. I actually knew that before I started working in the play, but now I know the older ones by name. I can joke with them or maybe offer a piece of advice. That’s the least I can do after they helped a dork like me realize that he can stand up on stage and entertain people.
Brian Shea used to write for HoboTrashcan, but like Gladys Knight, he left us Pips behind to write for his own site, Regular Guy Column.