Portia Has Missed Her Entrance

It was a failed play.

It had taken too long to write, and it only ever got a few productions. But one of those productions was at an elite Southern school that had the resources to fly me out to see it and to work with the cast.

The theatre space had been described as a black box, but that was one serious black box. The play—Nowhere—was mostly set in an alternate universe, and the longtime tech director had outdone herself in creating it. Characters flew in. They climbed up ladders or emerged from entrances one hadn’t realized were there.

The director had staged it in the round—the square, actually– and had done so wonderfully. Each night, the two of us watched from a different side, and the square did exactly what arena staging is supposed to do: it gave the same story but differently nuanced depending on the vantage point

On the final night, fifteen minutes in, something was off, but I couldn’t tell what it was. The director whispered to me, “Portia missed her entrance.” A few days earlier, Portia had landed wrong while rehearsing on the zipline that flew her in. She’d fallen and suffered a concussion, plausibly the reason she’d missed her entrance.

Unfortunately, Portia was an Otherworld guide. She had an enormous amount of exposition that she spouted, unbidden, without which the next hour and a half were not going to make any sense. (Like I said: a failed play.) As sometimes happens in a crisis, a leader emerged, self-appointed.  He was small and, by the standard of theatre kids, shy But he took control.

Portia hovered at an entrance, waiting to fix the problem. But he locked eyes with her and shook his head in a way that made it look like he was stretching: it was too late.

His character had no way to know the information and so, again disguising a gesture,  he signaled to a character who could exposit the world. She channeled her inner Glinda and explained the rules of the world to the newcomer.

At the end of her monologue, she became a little grand and said to another character: “And what else should I tell you?” (To this day I’m not certain if she didn’t remember everything or if she simply wanted to parse it out it out in a way more expert than I had.)

That character took the baton, filled in the gaps, and the play moved on. Only two members of the audience knew what had just happened, and one of them had sweat covering his entire face.

Later, it occurred to me that I’d seen this situation before, but only ever in theatre. Only during a play can a group be called upon to confront a crisis in front of two hundred people without those people ever knowing that there is a crisis. Some combination of training, quick thinking and attentiveness to the other actors come together and the problem is solved.

After the show, I was watching the delightful ritual in which young performers enter the lobby, usually still wearing a bit of make-up, and get flowers and hugs. I was near the near the back of the lobby because I wanted to congratulate the beloved tech director, who I still hadn’t met. I’d seen her hovering backstage.

But she slipped out a side door. The rehearsal accident that had injured Portia had been deemed her fault and she’d been quietly let go.  At that point, only the director knew. The students would be told the next day.

It was a reminder— if one needed one—that theatre sometimes creates real problems as well as pretend ones, and that those problems can’t always be fixed.

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Why I Love Theatre Teachers

I love theatre teachers.

There are obvious reasons. I love their enthusiasm as they do a really hard and really important job. I love that they’re invariably easy to talk to, and funny. But there’s a bigger reason that I love theatre teachers, and to explain it I’m going to talk about a play that I wrote a long time ago.

In the late ‘80s, I had submitted a play called Sex Lives of Superheroes to a program called Plays in Process. I have no idea what Plays in Process was. You can’t even Google it. It’s gone from the earth. All I know is that at the time it was the most important thing in the world, and I was checking the mail every day. And when the decision arrived, the envelope was tellingly thin, a form letter probably containing the words “wish you luck.” But along with the letter, out slipped a short, handwritten note. It said, in its entirety:

 

Dear Mr. Gregg

Just a personal note—I loved the script, and even though it’s corny to say it, I laughed out loud about fifty times while reading it – I stopped to call several friends to read them the Maji speech. I plan to tell people about the script. Keep me informed about future work.

 

It was signed, Tony K. And the K was for Kushner.

Over the years, I’ve had fantasies about running into Mr. Kushner at a cocktail party, mentioning my name, and him saying, “Steve! I’m so glad to finally meet you! “

I have no idea what I was reading or watching in my mid-twenties that made me think that cocktail parties would be a part of my later life.    But to explain the bigger problem with my cocktail party fantasy, I need to tell a different anecdote, a story within my story.

*********

About four months ago, I was working with a high school that was producing my new play, Crush. I was only going to be at the school for a couple of days and so on this day I was the de facto director while the real director sat to the side.

After we ran a scene, I asked an actor a question, the way one does. I thought I had made it clear that I was asking the question of the character but, somewhat unforgivably, I had not. In front of the entire cast and crew, the young man answered my question not as the character might, but as himself. The question was, “when you arrive places, are people glad to see you, do you think? “ And his answer was, “… I’m not sure. Maybe not that much.”

That night, I was having dinner with the director‑—David Hastings, who teaches at Olathe South, in Kansas —and he told me that after the rehearsal, he had taken the actor aside, and told him that he was glad he was there, that everyone in the play was, and that he was doing a great job.

David’s low-key intervention reminded me of the real reason we love theatre teachers. It’s because of the encouragement that they give to young artists or, bless them, to young people brave enough to attempt an unfamiliar art form in public.

********************

Which brings me back to Tony Kushner and the note he slid into that envelope. The note is dated April 29h, 1989. That’s four years before Angels in America. I hadn’t heard of Tony Kushner. I don’t think most people had. He was in that phase of a playwright’s career when you work for a nonprofit and part of your job is to send sad letters to other playwrights

The story of the note he wrote to me isn’t a story about me at all. It’s a story about Tony Kushner and the generosity of spirit that infuses his plays. Kushner would not remember me today in part because, I guarantee you, he has written many, many of those notes.

I didn’t save that note because it came from Tony Kushner. In a way, it didn’t. I didn’t realize that until years later what I had.

But I did save it. It meant a huge amount to me.

It’s easy to underestimate the asymmetry of encouragement. Praise is a lever; you push and the other person rises disproportionately.

I still remember my own theatre teacher’s reaction to the first play that I wrote. Mickey Prokopiak had had his Acting II class read the one-act without telling them who’d written it. Then he told me how they’d reacted. I don’t remember the conversation well; I was too excited. But I remember that he used the phrase “incredibly enthusiastic,” and that two-word phrase has stayed with me for thirty five years. It’s part of why I’m a playwright.

Creative life, like life in general, is full of thin envelopes. You’re constantly being wished luck in your future. You have to be resilient, and part of what gives you resilience is having those people in your past who promised you that you could do this.

Often, those people are theatre teachers, the people who taught you the craft in the first place.

And by the way, the Crush story ends happily. That young man is the lead in the play, and the play’s going to be on the main stage at the International Thespian Festival this summer. So if you’re at Lincoln and you see him, don’t tell him that I told you this story. But do tell him that you were glad to have seen him.

An Apology

Playwrights almost always owe other playwrights debts. Usually, the debts are in the form of influence. But there’s karmic debt as well. And I owe some of that to the playwright Jose Rivera.

In the late Eighties, I was an intern at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. I served as the assistant stage manager on Jose Rivera’s play, The Promise.

The Promise is full of magic and spectacle. Flowers fall from the sky. A man’s soul rises out of his body. A dead woman materializes holding a bloody heart. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, the spectacle was accomplished through the use of wires and pyrotechnics. For the act one finale, a real bulldozer plowed onto the stage. When it was performed in New York, at the underwhelmingly equipped EST, the magic was mostly me, the sound of a bulldozer (on a sound system like a really good clock radio), and two spirits: Earth Spirit and Sky Spirit.

The spirits were the director’s idea: a terrible idea, actually. They were onstage during the entire play. Sky Spirit wore a blue leotard. Earth Spirit wore a brown leotard. For the most part, they had nothing to do except crouch and look mysterious. It was as though a pair of Solid Gold dancers had wandered into the middle of the Long Island backyard where the play was set.

But the spirits may have been the only thing wrong with the show that wasn’t my fault. Early in the run, it became clear that I was not up to the task of assistant stage managing.

First, there was the Balloon Incident. In the play, a backyard wedding is decorated with a bunch of helium balloons. The spirit world is not happy about the wedding and lets its displeasure be known by suddenly popping all the balloons. I have no idea how this effect was accomplished in Los Angeles. At EST, the spirits used the ends of artificial flowers to pop the balloons as quickly as they could.

During the last preview performance, for no clear reason, the balloons would not pop. Bam bam bam! The Spirits whacked those balloons again and again. Nothing happened.

It must have appeared to the audience as though the Spirits, trapped onstage with nothing to do, had gone insane and started to attack the set. Relatively soon, Sky Spirit realized it was futile and backed off. But Earth Spirit was on a mission. She appeared to think that the theatre had become infested with balloons and only she could save us. She jumped on them, twisted them, kneaded them, and when she finally did manage to pop one, she’d leap on the next.

It was strange, jaw-dropping performance. It was also, apparently, my fault.

After the show, Earth Spirit let everyone know that they had not been able to pop the balloons because the assistant stage manager had not filled them full enough.

Whether or not she was right, what happened the next night certainly was my fault. The first bit of magic in The Promise is that a flower blooms, suddenly, when two lovers kiss. This was my job, and it was simple. All I had to do was stand behind a fence and push on a piece of wire. In my opening-night excitement, I pulled instead of pushed, jamming the flower into the tube that held it. Panicked, I tried desperately to jar it loose, not realizing that my hands were visible. Instead of a flower blooming, the audience saw a pair of hands, writhing and twisting, a strange portent from the netherworld.

The stage manager screamed into the headsets to leave it alone, so I ran to the other side of the stage (at EST this meant running behind the audience) and got in place for my next job, which was to hand a bloody heart to an actress who waited behind a scrim. I pulled a black mask over my head to keep the audience from seeing me behind the scrim. But alas, I forgot the gloves.The same audience that had just seen a pair of hands squirming above a fence now saw the same hands floating mysteriously backstage, gesturing, then giving a little thumbs-up sign. Surely this was a motif.

While it would be comforting to attribute the mistake to opening-night jitters, the truth is, I never really settled into the production. It was rare that a performance wasn’t somehow marred by something I did or failed to do. Worse, the mistakes didn’t seem to get smaller. For spectacle, nothing surpassed what happened on the second-to-last night.

The quite spooky, oddly lovely final image of The Promise is that a row of corn plants planted in the backyard start to bleed. This was also my job, also quite simple. Backstage, I’d flip a lever, stage blood would flow from a pressurized tank, through some tubes and down the ears of corn.

One night, the corn bled too slowly. The audience couldn’t even tell it was happening.

By this point in the run, everyone knew who to look at when something went wrong. The stage manager screamed at me to make sure that next time there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Now a confession. It may be that there was a touch of passive-aggressive zeal in me as I pumped up the tank the next night. It may be that I was thinking about all the other times I had been yelled at: The Sign Incident (which was, in fact, my fault), the Cooking Disaster (also my fault), the Pocket Watch mishap (actually, no), the Coffin Debacle (yes). I hope that is not the case.

At any rate, there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Did you ever see the movie Carrie? Imagine that the title character is a telekinetic ear of corn, and you have a pretty good idea of what happened

The poetic final moment of the play became a gore-fest. The corn stalks whipped back and forth as blood spurted into the air, soaking the stage and cast members. As I recall, it got a round of applause.

So, Mr. Rivera, I apologize. It’s clear that I did not hinder your career.

Still, you deserved better.

Skin-head Wig

When I was six I wanted a skin-head wig. I’d seen the ads in the back of comic books; the man wearing the skin-head wig was as bald as a mannequin.

I got my mother to help me send in the money and then I’m pretty sure I forgot all about it. Still, when it arrived three weeks later I was excited. I ripped off the brown outer mailing cover and, even through the plastic pouch, it was disappointing.

The color was what a Crayon company might call Flesh Yellow. Also, it didn’t fit. There was nothing to secure the sideburns, so they hung down like extra-long earlobes.

Nonetheless I tromped around the neighborhood and approached groups of kids, announcing that I was now bald. The other first graders laughed or rolled their eyes or just said “No, you’re not.”

But there was one strange thing. Even though the swim cap on my head fooled none of my peers, it fooled all of the fourth graders. They were baffled, curious about how and when this phenomenon had manifested.

Even at six-years old I understood what was happening but I wasn’t going to say it, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t either. The wig was my entree’ into the world of fourth graders, who were hilarious and always glad to see me. I remember that one of them invited me on a scavenger hunt.

In theatre, we talk about suspension of disbelief, but the dynamics of watching a play are more complicated than that. It’s rare that we’re really transported. If we’re supposed to be in Denmark we don’t see the battlefield or notice that the invisible castle walls need whitewashing.

A play is a skin-head wig. The actors are pretending for us and we’re pretending that we believe their pretending. This is part of the reason that the Would-You-Please-Stop-Whispering moment is so fraught. The offended audience member is annoyed for himself, yes; but he’s also protecting the actors, worried that they’ll hear that the audience isn’t being swept away.

The play is a performance but it’s also a contract, and a fantastic one: not binding (on the audience side) based solely on goodwill. The contract is simple and generous: The actors don’t hear the whispering. The audience doesn’t notice the lobes.

 

 

Deep Blue Scene

We were in a motorboat, on our way to snorkel, when we came upon a pod of dolphins.

The captain stopped the boat so that we could watch them.

A guidebook I’d read had said not to do that, because it terrorized the dolphins. But they didn’t seem terrorized. They stayed near the boat. Had they left, we wouldn’t have chased them.

Todd made fun of me because I said that I thought the dolphins actually liked having us around, that the ocean must be sort of boring for animals so smart.

Water water water water fish water fish water water kelp water water.

Any regular theatergoer knows an entire ecosystem of boredom.

There’s Head-bob Boredom: your chin touches your chest and you snap it back up (“Still awake!”) There’s Anxiety Boredom (“Why is there a bump on my tongue?”) and the always-painful Rictus Boredom: the boredom that requires you to smile because you’re one of twelve people in the audience of your friend’s play.

Which armrest is mine? Count the audience. Cuticle cuticle cuticle cuticle  cuticle cuticle cuticle leave.

Art that takes place over time has an ethical obligation to try to engage its spectators. Boredom is a form of torture. Studies link short-term boredom to anxiety and longterm boredom to clinical depression. I’ve known two people—sensible, strong people, one man and one woman—who’ve told me that when they get really bored they start to cry.

As playwrights, let’s make sure to stop the boat. Let’s fill our plays with story and spectacle and surprises.

Given the option to terrorize the dolphins or bore them to tears, let’s err on the side of fear.

Happy 1016!

You Should Write a Play

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Dramatics magazine.

You should write a play.

You. The person reading this article.

You know it’s crossed your mind. It was probably one of those stray thoughts you had the last time you got bored while sitting in a theatre. You were sitting there trying to stay engaged with what was happening on stage and wondering which armrest was yours and you thought: I could do better than this. I should write a play.

And you were right.

But you haven’t done it. When was that resolution? Was it last week or last year? Why haven’t you written something?

If you’ve thought to yourself that you should write a play but you haven’t done it, then it’s likely that one of three things happened: you got too busy; you started but didn’t get very far; or, after thinking about it some more, you realized you didn’t have anything to write about.

Let’s look at each of those reasons for not having written and demolish them.

 

You haven’t written your play because you were too busy

It’s true. You are busy. You’re balancing classes, work, family and friends just for starters. It’s plausible that you don’t have time to write a play. But it’s not true.

You know from observation that the relationship between time and accomplishment is not straightforward. You’ve probably noticed, for example, that the times when you’re the busiest are also the times when you’re the most productive. And, as you know from cramming for your tests at the last minute, the most urgent task commands the most attention.

What you need isn’t more time. What you need is a deadline: so let’s give you one. A great deadline for a ten-minute play, which is what I’m going to suggest that you write, is Actors Theatre of Louisville’s ten-minute play program. Their deadline starts on September first and ends on December first, but they only take the first five hundred plays.

If you’re reading this when I’m first publishing it—late 2015— that deadline is too far away anyway. Go to Playsubmissionhelper.com . They have monthly listings of the upcoming deadlines so you can find one an appropriate amount of time in the future.

Don’t’ worry too much about the numbers. If you’re one of the 500 writers who submit to Actors Theatre your odds of winning are .2 percent.

499 plays are not going to win that contest. But some of those plays will get rewritten and then produced or published or both. And some of those playwrights put that play aside and think: now I know how to do it better. In other words, the value of the deadline isn’t just in the plays that were developed for it; it’s also in the writers who were inspired to try something that they might otherwise not have.

You started but didn’t get very far

Maybe you’re one of those writers who did carve out the time to write a play and then, as you typed, you felt your head get light. Your chest tightened, like you’d just jumped into cold water, as you thought: What I’m writing isn’t good.

You stopped.

What happened to you is a classic case of writer’s block. And you’re in luck, because writer’s block is one of the most famously studied creative problems there is. Writer’s block is almost always a case of your internal editor stepping in too early. You start to write something, but a voice in your head says, “No, this isn’t good enough.” The gap between the quality of what you’re producing and the quality of what you want to produce is too great and so you stop.

It can help to think differently about what it means to write a play. If you want to stump four out of five of your friends (and nine out of ten of your non-theatre friends) ask them to spell both “playwright” and “playwriting.”

If you want to stump everyone, including your teacher, ask them why playwright has a gh and playwriting doesn’t. Playwright comes from the old English verb “to make.” A playwright was someone who shaped plays, the way an ironwright shaped metal. Over time, the verb was misspelled as its homonym and the two words diverged.

But it’s useful to remember that the Elizabethans thought of a playwright as someone who shaped a play rather than someone who wrote it.

To begin with, that means that you can write a good play even if you don’t think of yourself as a good writer. You might have an ear for dialogue or—better—a sense of theatricality that doesn’t manifest in those C-minus English compositions you dread writing.

More important, knowing that a play is something to be shaped can you as try to force out that crappy first draft.

And that’s what you need to do: force it. You have to get that first draft down so you can shape it. You’re a wright as much as a writer. A playwright is a sculptor who has to first create her own clay.

 

You don’t have anything to write about

You feel like you have no ideas.

One of the things you’ll find over time is that, counterintuitively, creativity thrives when it’s limited.

In his documentary The Five Obstructions, the director Lars von Trier challenges his filmmaking mentor, Jorgen Leth, to remake Leth’s short film The Perfect Human five times, each time with different conditions imposed by von Trier. He has to shoot it in Cuba with no shot longer than twelve frames, for example. Or make it as a cartoon. The resulting short films are each thoughtful, compelling takes on the original, except one. Leth struggles with the last assignment, which is that there is no assignment. He’s allowed complete freedom and the result isn’t very good.

That’s an instructive result. If someone says: “Write a play. Go!” you might find yourself paralyzed. But constraints—obstructions—are springboards. If someone tells you to write a two-character play about an astronaut who’s returned to earth after fifty having aged only three days, you’ll have an idea. It might be an idea you reject for a better one, but either way your playwright mind is working.

So here is your assignment, full of obstructions:

Write a two-character, ten-minute play in which one character has a secret from the other character, and that includes something that’s impossible to show realistically.

Why these constraints? Let’s look at them one by one.

     Two characters

The two-character scene is the proton of playwriting, the basic unit.

In a two-character scene one character wants something and the other character wants her not to have it. That’s all there is to it. At some point, probably early, Cora declares what she wants and Abba opposes her. They use verbal tactics (charm, deception, intimidation) and physical ones (punches or kisses, for example) to get what they want. The scene is over when one of them wins.

The two-character scene is simple but powerful. There are lots of full-length plays that use only two characters or only two-character scenes.

And learning to write a two-character scene teaches you the basic model for any story: a character wants something but things get in his way.

     Ten minutes

You want to start small. You wouldn’t start learning to paint by trying to create a mural, and you shouldn’t start writing plays by attempting an evening-length work.

That’s actually a bad analogy, because if you were to decide to teach yourself by painting a (let’s assume) bad mural, most people would walk by, glance at it, think “eh” and walk on.

But theatre is an art form that takes place over time. Other people’s time. You must not subject innocent audience members to your learning curve. Even ten minutes seems long if the play’s not working right.

As a playwright, you’re making a contract with the audience. They leave their homes and pay to be trapped in their seats for a certain amount of time. Your responsibility, as the playwright, is to entrance. For now, that’s easier to do in short form. It would be ironic if that long-ago moment when you were bored at the theatre had inspired you to write a too-long play.

One character has a secret from the other

A lot of playwriting is information management. When does a character know something? And when does know the audience know things?

Giving a character a secret makes information a currency in your play. How much is the information worth? What will the other character to do get it? And you’ll find you have to make a choice between whether the audience knows the secret—dramatic irony—or not.

     Your play has to show something that’s impossible to show realistically

Even though you’re starting small, you want to think big.

Just because you’re writing your story for the stage doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to writing things that could actually happen in that space. In fact, you shouldn’t.

One of the best ways to entrance an audience is to show them something that they couldn’t possibly have expected to see onstage.

Think about Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods A cow dies. Birds peck out the evil stepsisters’ eyes. A giant strides across the land. Part of the delight of the play is seeing how those events are brought to life. (For a sample of how it’s done, check out the hilarious, ever-growing Milky White Tumblr, filled with pictures of all the ways that theatre folk have put Milky White onstage, and then killed him.)

When you show an audience something that it would be impossible to show realistically, you do more than delight them. You put them to work. It takes mental energy to turn say, a stretch of blue cloth into a river, but audiences love expending that energy. There’s no better way to pull an audience into your play than by making them conspire in the telling of it.

And if you’ve pulled your audience into the play, then it’s guaranteed that they’ re not worrying about which armrest is theirs.

Now go write your play.

To recap: your assignment is to write two-character, ten-minute play in which one character has a secret from the other and in which something must happen that can’t be depicted in a realistic way.

Your deadline is September 1, 2016, unless you find a better one. And by better, I mean earlier.

Taming the Wolf

Sometimes I picture myself as Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

The story in my head is actually better than the one in the movie, because it contains a difficult-to-explain-in-a-concise-manner video feed, so that not only do I outplay Alan Rickman and save all the people in that building, but I do it while my parents are watching. I know I’m not the only person who adds a familial audience to their Walter Mitty fantasies, and I think that this helps explain why educational theatre is so wonderful.

We love to see those we love succeed, and we love to succeed while those we love can see.

* * *

Recently, someone asked me what had been my favorite production of This Is a Test.

This Is a Test, a one-act published in 1988, has had a couple of thousand productions, and I’ve seen a bunch of them. But it was an easy question. My favorite performance was a reading, the first reading, at the University of New Mexico in 1987.

It was for a class. I’d graduated from college but was home taking part in a summer playwriting class at the University of New Mexico. The structure of the class was that you brought in something you’d been working on and you brought your own cast to read it. The actors would perform the play and then Wolf Mankeiwizc would eviscerate it.

Wolf Mankeiwizc was the world’s meanest teacher, which is always kind of a great teacher to have. Mr. Mankeiwizc was English, in his seventies, and had been a little bit of a big deal television director in the U.K. at some point. I have no idea how he came to be teaching a six-week, not-for-credit summer class to non-writers, and I’m not sure he did either.

Mankeiwizc taught playwriting by explaining why your play wasn’t playwriting. Some of the writers cried during the critique, others just nodded respectfully to acknowledge their failure.

I’d like to say we called Wolf Mankeiwizc the Wolf, but it wasn’t that kind of class. The other students were all middle-aged and too quiet. You got the feeling that some percentage of them were taking the class to combat depression. I don’t know if Mankiewicz couldn’t sense the sadness or if he savored it.

The room made things worse. It was small and rectangular but the table that we all sat around was large and square. If you were sitting on the sides you had to be thin and limber. Those who arrived first would exhale their way to the far side and the room would fill towards the door.

I’d been writing this This Is a Test for about six months and when it came to be my turn to present, I realized that I had not been sufficiently proactive about casting. I asked my friend Joshua, more family than friend, if he’d play the lead. I recruited my sister Laura and she called a couple of friends and I was still short so we just went house to house, knocking on the doors of people whose kids went to the school we had gone to. Nobody said no.

The day before the presentation we rehearsed for a couple of hours.

My play was the second of the two presentations scheduled that day. My cast was told to arrive at eleven-fifteen. And on the dot of eleven-fifteen, the door to the classroom opened tentatively and then fully and in came the eight members of my cast.

It was July in Albuquerque so the kids were all shorts and skinny arms and weirdo sports injuries. One of the reasons this image is so vivid to me is that it took so long. Laura, my sister, was on crutches for some reason. Getting her and those crutches to the far side of the room, the presentation side, was like a team building exercise.

My mom was there. Her job had been to somehow manage transportation for everyone. I’ve seen her do an imitation of the expression on the faces of the other students when my cast walked in. It mixes equal parts confusion and how-did-I let-my-life-get-to-this-point?

But I was watching the cast. They were excited but they were also nervous, facing a room full of skeptical adults. A couple of them were having that moment when you realize that something you’ve signed up for has a component of scary that you didn’t anticipate.

Mr. Mankiewicz was very, very polite. He said, “Begin when you wish.”

* * *

In retrospect, the casting had accidental brilliance.

It sounds weird to say this about a high-school one-act, but This Is a Test is a star vehicle. A lone student fights an increasingly futile battle with an increasingly malevolent test, while the teacher and the other students make things worse. And Joshua Cooper Ramo, who has since conquered the world, was already a star. Watching Joshua perform in my play had some of the same pleasure you get when you watch a professional tennis player: virtuosity combined with creativity.

But just because an actor carries the bulk of the lines doesn’t mean he carries the play. Next to Joshua were people like Laura, people who hadn’t acted before but had the good sense to treat this comedy like a party. They played small comic parts and they were having fun and that is fun to watch.

And, just as crucial, and not that hard to spot, were the kids who started out nervous, whose main concern was not missing their lines, not mispronouncing anything. Inexperienced actors are a crucial part of high school theatre. They’re lovely to watch because they’re brave enough to try something new in public.

Educational theatre gives you the double pleasure of rooting for the characters while rooting for the kids playing the characters.

To me that cast embodied school theatre: skill mixed with joy mixed with bravery, and beneath it all a delicious hint of goofiness. Different parts of that equation would have affected different parts of the people in that room differently, but no one could resist it. The other students loved it.

Even the Wolf was charmed. He loved the play and he told the cast how well they had done. But the reason I remember that day so well isn’t because of the cast or the script or even the Wolf. A big part of the joy of that day was the transportation committee. It’s not that often in theatre (or life) that everything goes right, that your image of what you want to happen actually happens. And it sure is great to have someone you love so much witness it.

Educational theatre is better than an awful lot of adult theatre because it takes the same ingredients—script, set, actors, crew, audience—and adds affection. The audience loves the cast and vice versa.

We reflexively make up stories about our lives. It’s one of the reasons we respond so well to the stories of others. When I think about that morning, I realize that I’ve framed it as a quest, as my ideal version of a quest story.

Our hero is called on to defeat a beast: a wolf, in this case. He recruits his sister and his friend as allies, and together they lead an unlikely band of adventurers, each of whom has unexpected skills. Against all odds, they defeat the monster—tame him, actually.

And through a difficult-to-explain-in-a-concise-manner series of events, the hero’s mother watches, and beams.