(I told this story at a South by Southwest live storytelling event a year ago. This comes from my Booby Naked collection of personal stories).
Did you know Robert Rodriguez–the guy who made El Mariachi at the age of 23? Before making that film, he had already written and directed 200 home movies, starting at the age of 9. In Georgia, there’s a group of kids who decided to film their own reenactment of Raiders of the Lost Act. They started when they were 13 and finished in 5 years. Isn’t that incredible?
But in my days — back in the last century — all we had was drama club.
Do you remember drama club? Those plays? Do you remember how students got a period off to see the play–how they sat on cafeteria tables or folding chairs, how the PA would blurt announcements in the middle of the performance, “MRS JOHNSON, CAN YOU BRING YOUR ABSENTEE LIST TO THE OFFICE PLEASE.”
Drama club was all we had. There are two essential qualifications to be an actor. First, you had to be loud. You could be Naomi Watts, but if you weren’t loud, you’d never make it. Second, you had to be able to read and memorize lines. Many kids couldn’t do that.
Luckily I could, and after a 6th grade drama class with Mrs Filardo, I was ready. Mrs. Filardo was an actress; everything was a lavish gesture; she spoke precisely and carefully. She was from New York, the home of Broadway. She made us do breathing exercises, lying down on the carpet, during class. I loved that stuff.
We got along fine, and that’s why she put me in a comic play called Don’t Pet My Rock. It was about the pet rock craze, a seventies fad I’d never heard of. I was Man Two. I had exactly one line. (But it was a terrific line!) I was married to Woman #2, a Tall and extremely cute 8th grader who had five or six lines. I thought that the mere association with Woman #2–we were after all married–would provide a boost to my social life.
The play could be boiled down to one joke. These crazy woman treated their rocks with loving attention while their husbands groaned and complained. It was awful. Here was my single line:
Woman 2 (starts talking about her pet rock named Nickie). Nickie had a cold and a temperature and was coughing all night. I even had to call the doctor, My husband here heard him coughing all night. Harry, didn’t you hear him cough?
Man 2. Oh, yes, I heard him talk. And I also hear bells. And Whistles. And I see dancing ostriches. Great big purple dancing ostriches! Look I’m a big dancing ostrich!
Then I would prance around onstage like a crazy dancing ostrich.
Now to you this line may have seemed dumb, but in middle school the speech brought howls of laughter, and even a little applause. It was the big line of the play. People came to me afterwards, and said, “Oh, you’re the dancing ostrich guy!”
We did 5 performances. 4 were during the day. 1 was at night for the parents. I couldn’t wait. I had practised this line over and over in front of the mirror at home, but I had never let my parents hear. I was ready to wow them at the evening’s performance.
But when I came onstage that night and the play began, there was a problem. Someone messed up a line and skipped an entire page of dialogue; they had skipped over my line. What’s worse, they skipped over my exit cue, so I had to remain onstage. Woman #2–my wife– still had several lines left, but I had none. I had nothing to say, nothing to do except stand there watching everybody — waiting for this crappy play to finish.
My next performance was for Christmas Carol. I played the boy on the street corner. When Scrooge wakes up and realizes it was all a dream, he goes outside and calls a random boy on the street.
Scrooge: Hey, Boy, you know that shop down the corner that sells turkeys?
Me: You mean the one with the turkey as big as me?
Scrooge: Yes, here’s some mullah, go and buy that turkey and have it sent to Bob Cratchit’s house.
Me: Yes, sir! (Running away).
Not a show-stopping speech, but at least I had two lines. I was moving up.
And then my big break happened. We were doing a murder mystery. I played one of the bystanders, when suddenly the killer had to drop out; he was failing algebra. So I become the killer. My arch-enemy was the detective (who was Scrooge in the other play). One moment he was throwing money at me to buy turkeys; the next moment he was doing everything in his power to put me in the slammer. In one scene, where Scrooge figures out the killer is me, I take out a gun and have a brief struggle with him; Then I would slip over a manikin and fall, giving Scrooge a split second to grab my gun. Oh, my fall was great. Falling was something I had a natural talent for. I’d be backing off (and towards the audience) and then I’d slip and fall–wow! I made sure my parents got to see that.
The next year I did minor roles. I played Officer Delaney, this dumb cop who was chasing after a teenage hoodlum wrongly accused of stealing a car. Then I went to speech tournaments. I did duet acting, interpretive prose, dramatic interpretation. I was good–or so I believed. In the semifinal round, I found myself competing against two black guys. They were reworking Bill Cosby routines and they were funny–hilarious! They had timing, grace and total command of the audience. I had never seen such talent before. Then I saw a girl — my age– read a story about her dying mother. She alternated between poetry and song and dialogue and tears and laughter–it was incredible. I was crying! I couldn’t believe it! I never cried at movies, but this girl–this talented girl–just made me cry. She was that good.
It left quite an impression. These people were actors. I was not. I did not belong in their club. Sure, I went through the motions. But I knew no matter how hard I tried, I could never reach the level they had already reached. Drama, I realized, was not my thing. But what WAS my thing?
Meanwhile, back at the middle school, the drama teacher asked me to be in the the 8th grade play. The play was called Broadway Hit, and I was a Texas cowboy who bankrolled a Broadway play. Basically I had to use a drawl and act rich. But in my heart, I knew this was an awful part for me. I was a Yankee. On Go Western day, me and my siblings were totally clueless, totally out-of-place. My mother would ask us if we wanted to have Teh-cos for dinner. No, Mom, it was TAW-cos, TAW-cos, TAW-cos!
The other thing was this play had songs. Ever since the 5th grade, I vowed never to sing in public. I was in 4th grade choir, and I enjoyed it, but when 5th grade came along, a new music teacher came, along with the requirement that we had to audition individually. I still remember that audition. The woman played the piano, while I tried to sing. But nothing came out. “Come on, sing,” the music teacher said.
I started singing, and the woman looked at me with a perplexed, almost horrified expression. The teacher was dumbfounded; she seemed to be thinking, how could we have allowed this boy to sing?
But as luck would have it, they changed the rules, and everyone was admitted into choir anyway. I sang in a special section. During certain songs, the teacher would say, “This section–just move your lips.” From that point on, I knew to avoid singing.
But how do I tell the drama teacher about my lack of musical talent? She said the cowboy had to sing in a group number, no solo. So I agreed. And while it was technically a group number, she failed to tell me I had a solo lasting two stanzas within the group song. For the first few rehearsals, we didn’t sing, but the following week, Mrs. Shoppe wanted to do a musical rehearsal. I was terrified.
I ended up staying home from school for an entire week and a half just to avoid drama club. Ok, on the first day I really was sick, but for the next week it was entirely fake. I would watch TV while thinking about the classes and rehearsals. I would sometimes sing that damned song aloud–trying to convince myself my voice wasn’t that awful. But when I heard what came out–I became nauseous.
Finally after a week, I returned. I knew I had to face the music, and besides, Mom was growing suspicious. So I come to rehearsal, nervous and eager to get it over with. Then, Mrs. Shoppe made an announcement. “We have a special guest at rehearsal today. Sara’s dad brought a video camera, so we can videotape the rehearsal. That means all of us can watch it later, and see what we’re doing wrong.” Not only would I sing horribly in front of the group, I also would be able to watch a repeat of it later that afternoon. This was my nightmare raised to the fifth power.
So I sang the song quickly, and after my song was over, I felt relief. But we still had to watch that videotape. Mrs. Shoppe turned the video on, and I didn’t want to watch or hear it. And when we came to my song, a miracle occurred; there was no laughing or snide looks or comments from the teacher. I realized that amidst the overall mediocrity of the play, my own awful singing didn’t particularly stand out. Nobody was noticing.
So I became a mediocre cowboy and sang my song with that awful voice. My number had dancing—dancing! — and at the end the female lead –a beautiful girl with a naturally charming voice–sat on my knee. I took off my cowboy hat, and then she would pretend to kiss me behind it. It was actually kind of cute, but on the day of the performance, when I put the cowboy hat in front of our heads, instead of pretending to kiss me, the girl kissed me for real. My first kiss ever. I was stunned but happy.
Then high school came. I went to an all boys school. They had drama club. But it was all Sweeney Todd and Midsummers Night’s Dream and Waiting for Godot; it wasn’t fun; it wasn’t cool. Instead I participated in another afterschool activity, one which emphasized teamwork, strategy, physical endurance and working towards a goal. That activity was called Dungeons and Dungeons. For the next four years I spent every waking minute on D&D, a period of time I will honor with respectful silence.
A postscript. Although I never in my wildest dreams expected to go into acting, I had my first theatrical debut in 2004, in a real theatre, where people actually paid money for tickets. The theatre was Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Very prestigious. The play was Frankie and Johnny. I was the usher. My name wasn’t actually listed in the program; I was the one handing them out.
But make no mistake; it was a challenging role, requiring steady concentration. The house manager went through the orientation in 15 minutes: where the restrooms where, the seating chart, the No Food policy. I was paired with another usher. She took the tickets while I handed out the programs. Also I received an additional task. Apparently the newspaper incorrectly mentioned that there would be an intermission, when in fact there was none.
My job–my role–was to tell them this. I handed them the program and said, “the play will be 90 minutes without intermission.” But most of the time the ticket holders ignored me, treating me like a human turnstile in their rush to find a seat.
So I changed tactics. I’d hand them a program and say “NO intermission!” Still they ignored me. So I tried a different interpretation.
“By the way, there will NOT be an intermission during this 90 minute show.”
Everyone would walk a few steps, paying no attention, and then suddenly it would hit their brains.
“What was that? Did you say no intermission?”
Then they would rush back to the rest room, in a state of near panic. Yes, the actors’ words and gestures may have moved these people to tears — but mine moved their bodies to the urinals.
Then I learned the secret. I was an actor. We were all actors. We’re all trying to subtly manipulate people’s reactions–even in real life. “Did you find everything all right?” “I did not have sex with that woman.” Would you like to buy our extended warranty?” “Have you been working out?” “Our employees are our most important asset.”