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.