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Notes on Life
My stint in the theater may have been the happiest period of my brief existence. I won’t pretend I’ve experienced enough in my short life to complain about its lack of extreme thrills, but I will venture to say that every time I was cast in a play was a time I felt right, and looking back now that I’ve all but quit theater I can see that it’s the only place I’ve ever truly belonged. The following tale tells of my first performance in my first play, Peter Pan.
I was in two productions of Peter Pan. The first more closely resembled the J.M. Barrie version (the original). I was an added character, a narrator, and I shared my role with three other actors. We were stars in the ever-glowing Neverland sky. Sure, it may have been a bit degrading and embarrassing, but when one chooses to enter the world of acting it is soon apparent that the camaraderie and friendship that come behind-the-scenes make up for any discomfort caused by what goes on in front of the curtain. However, what is depicted in the following tale is “the acting part”.
I awoke early one cold (and thus typical) December morning. Today was the big day. Today I’d get to act in front of an audience for the first time. My dad drove me through the silent Souderton streets, and I finally arrived at my favorite destination. I closed the car door and waved goodbye to my dad, who had driven me to this humble abode. I walked the few steps to the theater’s entrance. I passed hazy steam rising from the sewer grates. The air, as always, smelled of fast food grease. The door to the theater looked as if it was locked, and I knew I’d have to stand out in the cold for a few minutes. The man who played Smee was already standing on the stoop, shivering. As he rubbed his red-gloved hands together and blew on them a cloud of frozen breath escaped his lips, proving just how cold it really was that day.
“I guess we’re early,” he offered, stating the obvious.
“I guess so,” I replied, smiling politely.
After about ten more excruciatingly cold minutes, Tom, the director (and the one with the key to open the door) had still not shown up. Half the cast had, however. We stood, teeth chattering and bones quivering impulsively. As we continued to attempt cutesy small talk, a silver pick-up rolled up the drive to relieve us of our seemingly endless discomfort. Tom had finally arrived.
As we entered the theater a few things happened. First our bodies began to thaw. That second wind of cold that happens after entering a warm room from the frozen outdoors began to overtake us as our temperatures raced downwards to a normal level. Then the familiar theater aromas filled our lungs: the homely smells of pine wood and fresh paint from the procrastination- inspired sets recently built, the lemony-fresh scent of last night’s round of cleaning, and most prevalently was the smell of mothballs from the old costumes watching us from the audience as we melted into the familiar space.
I grabbed my golden colored tin-foil inspired ensemble from the back row of the audience and changed into it with the three other Stars. We then congregated with the rest of the cast on the little stage for a final run-through before the audience arrived. It is said to be bad luck to rehearse in this way. I will not disclose at present whether I believe this theory to be true.
After the final run-through, we were sent backstage to lay in wait until the show began. I neglected to do this, however, as I took in the empty stage one last time. I wasn’t nervous. The little stage (combined with the audience seating area) was about the size of an average classroom. I was astounded to learn that an audience of about 75 people was normal for these performances. The dimly lit stage presented itself humbly. The red floor showed years of love and wear, with scuff marks and snags abound. The hand painted wall, which was a trademark part of sets here, had the Darlings’ home on one side of the stage and Neverland on the other, with glittering stars strewn across both sides of the stage.
I was in the zone, and so I ventured backstage. This place was not what you’d imagine a backstage area to be. It was merely a narrow hallway with more of the ripped up, fading red carpet, with one alleyway in the middle that led to a small dressing room.
“Ten minutes!” I was excited.
“Places!” We were sent to the spots in which we were to enter onstage. I was ready.
“Two minutes!” I was set.
Tom made what seemed like a twenty minute speech to the audience plugging other events at the theater and local businesses that sponsored the theater. It was time.
Shelby, who played Peter, strutted on stage and began her lines. Emily, a quiet little girl who played Tinkerbelle, soon scampered out after her. She spoke her lines through a kazoo.
“Toot!” The familiar kazoo-ing sound was my queue to enter. Everything went seemingly well until my hairpiece began to droop right before returning onstage the second time. Forgetting where and what I was, I began to adjust it. I kept doing so until my eyes met with Tom’s, leering at me. In a small arena like the one I was currently playing in, I was no doubt pulling focus from the other actors with my needless shenanigans. I was breaking the first rule of basic acting: never let them see you sweat.
After dropping the “water,” a long shiny piece of fabric, in the mermaid scene, I thought my problems were over. Not quite. I sat red-faced, waiting to hear notes, which Tom always gave to the cast after a dress rehearsal or performance. I figured I’d get one about playing with my hairpiece, but to my astonishment, that was the only thing Tom didn’t seem to notice.
“Who has the line â€˜Why oughtn’t we?’” Tom asked.
I raised my hand. “I do.”
“I couldn’t hear it very well. I was sitting where you’re sitting now, and I couldn’t hear you on that one.” I was sitting in the back row, but as I mentioned, I was playing in a pretty small venue.
“Who has the line â€˜Nana was a part of the family,’?” he asked.
My breath caught in my chest. That was my line also! “…um… I do.” This time I whimpered rather than speaking confidently as one always should.
“You’re not standing up for the whole line,” he explained. “It’s looking too act-y.”
“Okay.” I said.
“Barry,” Tom said. “On â€˜Vegetable or mineral?’ you’re still turning toward the back and it’s hard to hear you. Maybe cross halfway to Shelby on that one?” Barry played Captain Hook.
“Scott,” Tom laughed. Scott played Smee. He and Tom were old friends. “I liked you’re costume.” Scott wore a belly shirt and short pants with no shoes. He was not a thin man, but he was self-confident.
“Who has the line â€˜John and Michael were also growing up,’?” Tom asked next.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Another one of my lines had a problem? Now I was beginning to see why Tom didn’t know who I was: I was terrible!
I put my head in my hands and raised my hand pathetically. “Mine.”
Everyone laughed, but it was not a mean laugh. It was an “I’ve been there too,” laugh. I laughed too then, and while I felt embarrassed for making so many mistakes, I did not feel ashamed.
After Peter Pan I went on to do five more plays at that theater, including two that I helped to write. Although I never got any lead parts I always enjoyed the cast dynamics and camaraderie that came with plays. As for Tom the director, he actually grew fond of me in the years following this incident. He even made a speech celebrating my improvement since Peter Pan in my second play, Aladdin. I was only in the Chorus, but I will still always be proud of that moment because I am told he never did that for anyone before or since.
It might sound odd, but when everyone laughed at me for getting so many notes that day, I felt comforted and accepted by them. I have a friend who was in that first play with me and to this day he still brings up this incident on occasion. From this I learned that you must to learn to love yourself if you ever want to succeed at anything in life, and one of the most important steps along the way is learning to laugh at yourself.