I did theater in middle school and early high school. This tends to surprise my college friends who have never met the more desperate for attention, rougher around the edges middle school me. I learned lots of valuable lessons from my thespian phase, none of which actually carried on to be useful later on in my life.
Chief among these lessons: never trust the set. I learned this for the first time during a 7th grade show of Peter Pan. The whole production was ridiculously overdone. It was one of those moments that somebody needed to reconsider exactly how much to expect from 13 to 14 year olds. Really, I think we should be proud if everyone remembers their lines and delivers them in a halfway convincing fashion.
The set was done in lavish style with lots of fancy painted fold outs. One side would serve as plain old Victorian England and then the set would be flipped during the intermission to turn into Neverland. I played the role of John, one of Wendy’s brothers. It was decided that, instead of going through the trouble of having an actual intermission for the set change, Peter, Wendy, and the brothers would just run around the audience, pretending that we were flying to Neverland. Doubtless, the set change would take a maximum of five minutes and we could just ad lib for a little while.
Clearly, this plan was so fool proof that trivialities like practicing changing the set in a timely fashion just showed a lack of confidence in the plan. So on the performance night, we set off flying to Neverland. We ran around for a little while, trying our best to achieve a nice witty repartee and halfway succeeding. At least for the first five or ten minutes. But the signal we were waiting on to go back and restart the play just never came. We kept running, circling the audience, because what else were we going to do? In the background, we kept hearing lots of muffled bumps and hushed curse words so clearly the set was still a work in progress.
I prided myself on my acting prowess at this time. I had gone to all the trouble of understanding John’s motivations. It became clear to me about halfway through this session, John was not motivated to run for more than five minutes. John’s motivations had a convenient tendency to line up with mine, particularly when it came physical activity.
My repartee gradually became more pointed. It started out with relatively benign questions like “are we there yet?”, but I gradually upped the ante. “Shouldn’t Neverland be just around the corner? It feels like we’ve been flying for hours!” Around the thirty minute mark, my respect for the fourth wall completely broke down. “How hard is it to set up Neverland? It’s practically the same place as our house!” The audience, restless themselves at this point, ate up my commentary but, strangely enough, the crew did not appreciate it to quite the same degree. The crew afterwards gave me much more convincing death glares than Captain Hook ever managed.
The issue came up again in the next years play, Annie. I played the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a much smaller role involving only five lines. In retrospect, this casting choice may have been influenced by my rather obnoxious complaining the previous year. Of course, this never crossed my mind at the time.
As FDR, I would be in a wheelchair. Which was fine. Historical Roosevelt wouldn’t have really liked to be seen in a wheelchair but he wouldn’t be walking upright either, being paralyzed and what not. My entrance involved coming in between a couch and a dresser. This posed no problem during rehearsal, but naturally, when the actual day of the performance came and I tried to make my grand entrance, the couch and the dresser were too close together for the wheelchair to pass through. I had no idea what to do. I was stuck behind all the action and giving my big presidential address, while my head was barely poking above the couch. But I had no choice and tried to make my delivery extra convincing to make up for the fact it was obscured by a sofa.
I got my lines done with and went backstage, glad to be over with the nightmare. I didn’t consider that the problem would come up again when I was supposed to go out for my bow. I had been instructed to stay in wheelchair, to maintain the illusion of theater. Of course, the set hadn’t moved between my lines and the final curtain. So as I tried to come out, the wheelchair got stuck between the couch and the dresser again. I was paralyzed, and not just because I was playing the part of someone who was paralyzed. Should I take my bow behind the sofa? Should I just go backstage and not bow?
I eventually decided, once again, to be an iconoclast about maintaining the illusion of theater and violently got out of my wheelchair and walked up to take my bow, nearly knocking over the wheelchair over in the process. Surprisingly, this action got as much applause on it’s own as the main characters did later on.
My time in theater may be over but I still remember the lessons. I will never trust the set again.