Sure, back when they were freshmen, Kim and Tiffany and Laura were starstruck when they saw the older kids who took the leads in all the high school plays. There was Sean Bayer, who played Fagin in Oliver. There was Kathy Ferraro, who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and actually hugged Tiffany, who was then just a chorus member, during the big scene when says goodbye to Munchkinland. There was Robin S. Clark, who was just a freshman like them.
Robin S. Clark has been the lead in Cabaret and Singing in the Rain. And when I first met her and I saw her in Cabaret, I was like, oh my god. I can't believe she's a freshman. My god, she's so good. And then I had her in a few of my classes and we got to know each other. And I wouldn't say that we're best friends or anything. But I know her. I had Human Behavior with her. And we were in the same group or whatever, and it was just like, oh, she's in my group. Yeah!
These days, Tiffany, Laura, and Kim are upperclassmen at Oak Park and River Forest High School, just outside Chicago. Now they get the lead roles in the school plays. Now Kim would never be thrown by one girl who she remembers.
And oh wow, she was just the lead in 42nd Street and Anything Goes.
Yeah. I really got starstruck with her too. But she was not very nice.
And I thought she was so cool. And then the times that I'd meet her, she would just totally blow me off like I wasn't even important. And that just really hurt. That just really knocked me down.
But you know, Oak Park and River Forest is a big school. And in reality, most students do not get knocked down if the lead from 42nd Street ices them. Most students at Oak Park couldn't care less. Drama is uncool. Drama is to be ignored. But at Oak Park, as in high schools all across Chicago-land, all across our great Midwest, hundreds of miles within the sound of my voice right now, as I speak to you from Chicago, in every high school there's a small cadre of students, and they're in all the plays. They can discuss at length which show was Melky Boyle's best one. They're the ones who notice the newspaper clipping, taped up in the nurse's office, about Robin S. Clark, who's now in college.
But it said, "Robin S. Clark, the new funny girl."
Drama Student 2
Oh my god.
And I was just like, [GASP], I know her. I know her.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass back for another week, documenting everyday stories of these United States. Today's show is about the drama bug, people who get it. Act One, David Sedaris tells his mom that he wants to be an actor. Act Two, a month of rehearsals for a real high school play outside Chicago. Act Three, dying for Shakespeare. Stay with us.
Act One: Act One
Act One. David Sedaris is the author of Barrel Fever and of many plays, including most recently, One Woman Shoe in New York City. His plays get critical acclaim in the New York Times and elsewhere. He is a Morning Edition commentator. And it was this story of his that he's about to read for us, this story about getting the drama bug, that gave us the idea to do an entire program on the drama bug. We're going to divide up this story into two parts. Here's the first.
The man was sent to our school in order to inspire us. And personally speaking, I thought he did an excellent job. After introducing himself in a relaxed and casual manner, he started towards the back of the room, only to be stopped midway by what we came to know as "the invisible wall," that transparent barrier realized only by mimes, drug addicts, and certain varieties of rapid cycling psychotics. I sat enthralled as he righted himself and began investigating the imaginary wall with his open palms, running his hands over the hard, smooth surface in hopes of finding a way out. Moments later he was tugging an invisible rope, then struggling in the face of a violent, fantastic wind.
You know you're living in a small town when you can reach the ninth grade without ever having seen a mime. As far as I was concerned, this man was a prophet, a genius, a pioneer in the field of entertainment. And here he was in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a riot the way he imitated the teacher, turning down the corners of his mouth and rifling through his imaginary purse in search of gum and aspirin. Was this guy funny or what?
I went home and demonstrated the invisible wall for my infant brother, who pounded at the very real wall beside his bed, shrieking and wailing in disgust. When my mother asked what I'd done to provoke him, I threw up my hands in mock innocence, before lowering them to retrieve the imaginary baby which lay fussing at my feet. I patted the back of my little ghost in order to induce gas and was investigating its soiled diaper when I noticed my mother's face assume an expression she reserved for unspeakable horror. I had seen this look only twice before-- once when she was caught in the path of a charging, rabid pig and once again when I told her I wanted a peach-colored velveteen blazer with matching slacks.
"I don't know who put you up to this," she said, "But I'll kill you myself before I watch you grow up to be a clown. You want to diaper a baby? Make yourself useful and wipe up the genuine article." She handed me my brother before turning to leave the room. Because I respected her opinion, I did as I was told, ending my career in mime with a whimper, rather than the silent bang I had hoped for.
The visiting actor returned to the classroom a few months later, removing his topcoat to reveal a black body stocking worn with a putty-colored neck brace, the result of a recent automobile accident. This afternoon's task was to introduce us to the works of William Shakespeare. And once again, I was completely captivated by his charm and skill. When the words became confusing, you needed only pay attention to the actor's face and hands to know that this particular character was not just angry, but vengeful.
I loved the undercurrent of hostility that lay beneath the surface of this deceptively beautiful language. It seemed a shame that people no longer spoke this way. And I undertook a campaign to reintroduce Elizabethan English to the citizens of Raleigh.
"Perchance, fair lady, thou dost think me unduly vexed at the sorrowful state of thine quarters," I said to my mother as I ran the vacuum over the living room carpet she was inherently too lazy to bother with. "These foul specks, the evidence of life itself, have sullied not only thine shag-tempered mat, but also thine character. Be ye mad, woman? Were it a crime to neglect thine dwellings, you, my feeble-spirited mistress, would hang from the tallest venerable tree in penitence for your shameful ways.
Be there not linens to both launder and iron free of turbulence? See ye not the porcelain plates and hearty mugs waiting to be washed clean of evidence? Get thee to thine work, damnable lady, and quickly, before the products of thine very loins raise their collected fists in a spirit born of rage and indignation, forcibly coaxing the last breath from the foul chamber of thine vain and upright throat. Go now, wastrel, and get to it."
This time my mother, a high school dropout, was caught off guard. Members of her immediate family had done time in some serious mental institutions. And something suggested I might be next. I could tell by the state of my room that she spent the next day searching my dresser for drugs. The clothes I took pride in neatly folding were crammed tight into the doors with no regard for color or category. I smelled the evidence of cigarettes and noticed the coffee rings left on my desk.
I loved my mother dearly. But mess with mine drawers, and ye have just made thineself an enemy. Tying a feather to the shaft of my ballpoint pen, I quilled her a letter.
"The thing that ye search for so desperately resideth not in mine well-ordered chambers, but in the questionable content of thine own character." I slipped the note into her purse, folded twice and sealed with wax from the candles I now used to light my room.
I took to brooding, refusing to let up until I received a copy of Shakespeare's collected plays. Reading them, though, just didn't provide the kick I'd hoped for. I found it more enjoyable to simply carry the book from room to room, occasionally skimming for fun words I might toss into my ever-fragrant vocabulary. The dinner hour became either unbearable or excruciatingly, depending on my mood.
"Me thinks, kind sir, most gentle lady, fellow siblings all, that this barnyard fowl be most tasty and succulent, having simmered in its own sweet juices for such a time as it might take the sun to pass, rosy and full-fingered, across the plum-colored sky for the course of a twilight hour. 'Tis crisp yet juicy, this plump bird, satisfied in the company of such finely roasted neighbors. Hear me out, fine relations, and heed my words. For me thinks it adventurous, and fanciful too, to saddle mine fork with both foul and carrot at the exact same time, the twin juices blending together in a delicate harmony which doth cajole and enliven the tongue in a spirit of unbridled merriment. What say ye, fine father, sisters, and infant brother too, that we raise our flagons high in celebration of this hearty feast, prepared lovingly and with tender grace by this dutiful woman we have the good fortune to address as our wife, wench, or mother?"
My enthusiasm knew no limits. And as a result, it quickly reached the point where my mother literally begged me to wait in the car while she stepped into the bank or the grocery store. I was at the orthodontist's office, placing a pox upon the practice of dentistry, when the visiting actor returned to our classroom.
"You missed it, my friend Lois said, the man was so indescribably powerful that I was practically crying. That's how brilliant he was. I can't describe it any better than that," she placed her chain in her hand and stared out the window into the parking lot. "There's absolutely nothing left for me to say about it, nothing. I could try to explain his realness, but you'd never be able to understand it."
Lois and I had been friends for six months when our relationship suddenly took on a competitive edge. I'd never cared who made better grades or had the most spending money. We each had our strengths. The important thing was to honor one another for the thing they did best. Lois complained better than I did. And I respected her for that. Her grotesque excess of self-confidence allowed her to march into school wearing a rust-colored Afro wig. And I stood behind her 100%. She had more records than I did. And because she was a year older, she also knew how to drive a car and did so as if she were rushing to a fire.
Fine, I thought, good for her. I was genuinely happy for Lois until she questioned my ability to understand the visiting actor. I was the one who identified his brilliance in the first place. Me, not her. Sure, she'd been there beside me in the classroom, but she didn't even realize that was an invisible wall until I told her. When he'd come in with his Shakespeare, she'd been just like the rest of them, laughing at his neck brace and rolling her eyes at the tangerine-sized lump in his tights. Now she was telling me that I couldn't understand him? Me think not.
"Honestly woman," I said to my mother on our way to the dry cleaner, "To think that this low-lying worm might speak to me of greatness as though it were a thing invisible to mine eyes is more than I can bear. Her words doth strike mine heart with the force of a punishing blow, leaving me both stunned and highly vexed too. Hear me though, for I shall bide my time quietly and with cunning, striking back at the very hour she doth least expect it. Such an affront shall not go unchallenged. Of that you may rest assured, gentle mother. My vengeance will hold the sweet taste of the ripest berry. And I shall savor it slowly and with gusto."
"You'll get over it," my mother said. "Give it a few weeks and the whole thing will blow over."
This would become her answer to everything. She'd done some asking around and concluded that I'd been bitten by what her sister called, the drama bug. My mother was convinced that this was just a phase like all the others. A few weeks of prancing and I'd drop show business just like I had the guitar and my private detective agency. I hated having my life's ambition reduced to the level of a common cold. This wasn't a bug but a full-fledged virus. It might lay low for a year or two, but this little germ would never go away. It had nothing to do with talent. Rejection wouldn't weaken it and no amount of success could ever satisfy it.
The drama bug strikes hardest with Jews, homosexuals, and plump women who wear their hair in bangs. These are people who, for one reason or another, desperately crave attention. I would later learn that it's a bad idea to gather more than two of these people in an enclosed area for any amount of time. "Stage" is not an actual place but rather a state of mind related to one's whereabouts during the time you're not asleep. "Audience" defines anyone pausing long enough for you to interrupt. We were a string of light bulbs left burning 24 hours a day. And as a result, our exhausted public soon stopped wondering what all the fuss was about.
[MUSIC- "BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE" BY CYBILL SHEPHERD]
David Sedaris' story of getting the drama bug will continue later in our program after another story documenting everyday life in these United States. This recording, by the way, is Cybill Shepherd, 1974, an album called, Cybill Does it to Cole Porter.
Act Two: Lost In Yonkers
Act Two. "Lost in Yonkers." There are only 13 rehearsals left for the Oak Park and River Forest High School production of Neil Simon's play, Lost in Yonkers. And still people do not know their lines.
Maybe he's a thief too, mama. But at least he loved me enough to want to help me. Yeah, we're alive but that's all we are. Aaron and Rose are the lucky ones.
No, don't say that to me, Bella. God.
To play grandma, Tiffany Moore uses this metal cane during rehearsals. And it's become this all-purpose prop that she uses for expressing her moods, waving it around in the air, pointing it at people. At this point, she slams it against the ground. The assistant director, the stage manager, and the director, Mr. Simon, sit in the audience with scripts in hand and feed lines.
Not that hard a line. No, don't say that. Please god. Don't say that to me, Bella.
No, don't say that to me. Please god. Don't say that to me, Bella.
I'm sorry, Mama. I didn't mean to hurt you.
Yes you do.
Actually, the show's not in bad shape. The actors are mastering their accents, blocking, basic characters, they're all down. Tiffany's on stage with Laura Lopardo and both of them are old pros, veterans of seven other high school plays. Laura plays Bella, a slightly retarded 35-year-old woman. Laura is one of the strongest performers in this cast. She's very soulful. But she's also Mr. Simon's biggest worry. When he critiques the actors at the end of each rehearsal, he mostly tells the other actors to watch their accents or try some little moment a little differently. But at rehearsal after rehearsal he has the same criticism for Laura. Her character is still not there, he says.
It just-- it just-- she's just still too smart. You're too smart and she's coming out too smart. There needs to be more of--
I try to think about it. It's easier when I say [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE], lines like that are a little more easier.
Right, exactly. That sort of represents her level.
But then when it's the whole, I'm not crying. That's so hard. I don't really know how to work in stupidity.
Play it more childlike all the way through, Mr. Simon tells Laura, and those moments will come.
So your first line, for instance, Jay? It's me, Aunt Bella, can I come in? Guess who forgot how to open the door? I forgot my key.
Let us in. Hey, Charlie. Come on, let us in. Thank you. Bye, you guys. Let me in. You're a goof.
School is officially closed. But finally, someone comes to open up the door for the cast of Lost in Yonkers. They rehearse three times over spring break and two times the weekend before the show. And although it is a gorgeous spring day outside, everyone shows up in the dimly lit school hallway. And they seem happy about it.
Cast Member 2
You have to look--
Cast Member 3
Look at this.
Cast Member 2
--To understand the pulp in this orange juice. Check out the rim of my glass.
Cast Member 3
Look at this.
Mr. Simon bought of the wrong kind of orange juice for his cast this particular day. And Laura and Tiffany are teasing him about that. The cast has been together for five weeks. And they're getting so familiar with each other that they're beginning to function as a kind of hilarious, dysfunctional family.
You don't understand that-- you know orange juice really has pulp.
Cast Member 3
Not this much.
Cast Member 2
It is slime.
Before rehearsal can begin there have to be, of course, announcements. Katie has ordered Lost in Yonkers t-shirts for the cast. T-shirts from the various plays that they've been in seem to make up a significant part of the daily high school wardrobe of this cast.
Cast Member 4
And don't stiff me on this. Because I don't want to put $15 in for people who say they're going to buy a t-shirt.
There will not be-- if you do not leave your $15. When do you need it? Tuesday at the latest?
Monday at the latest. This is not a bank. This is not a bank, that's right.
This is actually a little joke. "This is not a bank," is a line from the play. As the cast spends more and more time together, they're starting to form their own little subculture full of references to the play and jokes that only they get. The Lost in Yonkers actors can get a laugh out of each other simply by saying the phrase, General Erwin Rommel, or, who was the friend?
Cast Member 5
Who was the friend?
And, touchingly, it's hard for them not to use these phrases out in their regular lives as well with people who don't know that these are lines from the play. They don't know that these are jokes.
Cast Member 6
That when I yell at my mom these days I use lines from the show. We were talking about my grandma and I go, Grandma's crazy, mom. Where did that horse fall, on her head? I was quoting the show. It's getting really scary.
And if all this just makes the drama kids seem like obnoxious weirdos, well you try reciting the same text over and over, three hours a day, for five weeks. And see if it isn't running through your head all the time, laying in wait for some conversational gap into which it can drive its powerful force.
At one point, Kim got the idea that they should all go out to eat together at a restaurant in character. As Tiffany explains, they did drive together in one car, piling into somebody's tiny compact whatever, asked for a table for seven for the Kurnitz family, which is their name in the play. But then they kind of lost their nerve. They didn't really play the characters.
Cast Member 7
Instead we just did our accents when we ordered the food. And the waitress kind of looked at us funny. And that was about it. She didn't really care. But we all thought it was funny. We all thought we were really pretty funny.
The youngest members of the cast are Ben Myers and Max Stewart. They're freshmen. Though, Max is quick to tell you, if you should ask him, that he's been in lots of plays, drama club shows in grade school, stretching all the way back to his role as Joseph in his first grade Christmas pageant.
And then I went to junior high. And they have a much more elaborate, much more professional program at the junior high. And I did a whole bunch of shows there. I got kind of discouraged after I didn't make West Side Story. But I just bounced right back and went to the next audition.
Max, when you talk about this, you sound like such an old pro.
Well, I don't want to sound like I've been in the business for that long. But it's been a few-- it's been a few years. I've seen a lot. I've done a lot. But I've still got a long way to go. I actually-- I don't like to get all cocky and toot my own horn here, but I did just-- I got asked by someone to understudy for a role at The Village Players theatre, which I was very, very honored to do. It was really a lot of fun.
The Village Players. Sure, they're not a real professional company. Sure, they're out in the suburbs, they're not down in the city. Sure, they're all volunteers. But they're adults. Not many boys go out for drama at Oak Park and River Forest high school. And directors often have trouble filling the male roles. And part of being in high school drama means putting up with friends who do not look too kindly on the entire endeavor.
I think a lot of guys-- almost all the guys see it is a real wussy thing to do, maybe. You know what I mean? Have you felt that, Max? That people are like that?
Like Ben said, they think it's a wussy thing because they think theater is one step away from like ballet.
There's a terrible stereotype about all guys in theatre are gay. And it's just-- it's awful because--
Because we're not gay.
An awkward silence falls amongst the three of us for a moment. Ben seems to know that what they've just said is a little strange, maybe a little offensive, because he makes a noise as if he's about to say something else. Then he looks at Max, looks down, rocks in place moment, and decides that he's not going to say anything.
This show, it's definitely probably the smallest part I've ever had. So it's a lot of waiting around, which can be difficult, and just kind of watching everybody else and wishing that I was up there with them.
Kim Plostina plays Aunt Gertie in the show. It's a small role, but the kind of small character part that can steal entire scenes. Kim wants to be an actress. And, while most of the cast is considering acting and theater as one option for their lives, Kim is certain. But she suffers from a handicap that the others do not. Her father is a professional actor. He does a lot of college industrial films.
Actually, he discourages me from it because he doesn't want me to get hurt, is his reason. But if anything, that's just harder. Because then I always feel like I have to prove myself to him too. I really wish he'd encourage me since it's kind of hypocritical since he does the same thing.
Maybe he seems how hard it is for him.
Oh yeah. Oh he's definitely had a hard time at it. Especially since a couple of his friends have made it big time, and then he hasn't. So that's hard for him to watch.
Years ago, at the Shady Lane Theater in Marengo, Illinois, her father was in shows with a young David Hasselhoff. And seeing his daughter fall in love with the theater-- it must be a kind of ordeal for him, the kind of test that every parent dreads. Should he discourage her in the thing she loves if it worries him so? But lately, Kim says, he's gone through a big change. He told her that he's going to introduce her to an agent. He's going to help her get auditions.
And then, my dad has said to me that he's been watching me on stage and sometimes tears come to his eyes. Just for him to say that, and since he always is discouraging me. For him to tell me that, it means a lot.
Tell me where.
Cast Member 9
Well, you have a problem.
I know I have a problem. I'm trying to solve it. And I'd appreciate any help you might give me from standing back there.
Cast Member 9
No that's worse. That's worse.
Six days before opening night, they run the play for the first time on the stage with the beginnings of a set, chairs representing where furniture will go. And there is a problem, there seems to be no way to put a table and sofabed on the stage and still have room for entrances and exits. So the cast converges on stage.
Cast Member 10
OK, I'm as tall as my arms are, right? And I know I'm exactly as tall as--
Cast Member 11
This is where the sofabed ends.
Cast Member 12
This would be the furthest corner down.
Jeff. Jeff, come here. Come here.
Cast Member 13
You need some male assistance?
No, I need somebody that's the largest person that's going to be on this bed.
Cast Member 14
OK, lay on the floor. Put your head under the chair.
At this point, a surreal scene gets even more surreal. For the next eight minutes, Jeff lays on the floor, his head under a chair, as six people walk around him arguing. He is placid. He is happy. He is the consummate professional. And this is part of why you do theater in high school. It's not just the place where you can get applause and approval. As Tiffany says, this is the most intense problem solving, the most serious, concentrated work that she does in high school.
But for example, do things happen in class that are as intense as that little discussion in your real classes?
No, never. The most debated thing that ever has happened in any of my classes is whether or not everyone did the homework or not. It's just so much more intense because it's a thinking and a physical thing and you just do it. And you do it over and over and over again until it's perfected.
Cast Member 15
Trixie, can you hear me? I've been giving warrants.
Cast Member 16
He gave you a warrant.
Sound Crew Guy
I'm not hearing you.
Cast Member 16
Sound Crew Guy
In the sound closet are the crew guys, the techies, who run the lights and the sound and build the set and handle the props. Anybody who's ever done theater anywhere will tell you about the ancient rivalry between cast and crew. There are 45 crew members for three theaters at Oak Park and River Forest High School. And they constitute kind of a permanent government. Actors come and go. Shows come and go. But crew members, they're there every week. And frankly, it can be a little irritating to them that the actors think that they're all that, when the crew really runs the show. At this school, they all have special hall passes. They all answer to a teacher that they all refer to simply as, "Boss." They all insist that you spell crew, C-R-U-E, as in Motley Crue. And don't forget that umlaut. Senior Jon Huber has done 57 shows.
Everything on crue is tradition. Everything. In our yearbook pictures we have pictures of our arms crossed right over left with a cut-out of a dinosaur and a stand-up light. And the dinosaur's name is Ralph. And the stand-up light's named Stanley. And we have literally turned around and walked out of pictures for our yearbook because they said we couldn't have it.
Jon says there's a lot of prejudice against crew. Some teachers think that they're slackers, and smokers, and drug users. People don't notice the charity work crew does. People haven't noticed that so many more girls are now on crew. Though that does threaten some crew traditions.
Some of the problems that we've had is female crew members have coddled some of the younger-classmen. And usually it's been our intent to kind of rule with an iron fist.
Do you think there's anything positive about the way the girls want to do it?
Oh yeah. They work a whole lot more than we do.
At that point, he turned back to his own work. Cues were being missed and opening night was just a few nights away. We arrive there in a minute when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our story about the Oak Park and River Forest High School production of Lost in Yonkers continues with opening night.
Cast Member 17
Aahhh. Yeah I know. My hands are sweating.
Minutes before the curtain rises, Laura is still being made up. She's sick with what turns out later to be pnemonia. Mr. Simon has given her another set of pep talks about making her character childlike and not too smart. She shivers and runs to the stage. No opening night is complete without some kind of small crisis. For Lost in Yonkers, it involves a form-fitting, sleeveless t-shirt that Jeff is supposed to wear on stage.
Jeff, get used to the idea. You're wearing it. You're wearing the dego tee. You have to.
I can't, come on.
You have to.
It's tighter than hell.
I don't care. You have to.
There are two types of actors, the kind who'd love nothing more than to reveal more of their own bodies on stage and the kind who can get a little self-conscious. Jeff is squarely in that second camp. He thinks he's too big for a tight t-shirt. And on the side of the dressing room, he sits, muttering bitterly that wearing the t-shirt will hurt his performance. Everyone goes backstage. It's all shadows and darkness and the dim, blue work lights. For six weeks, they've planned for this moment and practiced for it and wondered about it. And now, for the first time, they get to see if they were right about what would make sense to the audience. And early in the first scene, it happens. They get their first laugh.
Cast Member 18
They laughed. They laughed. Yes.
A few scenes later, Jeff, who's playing a small-time Jewish gangster, is supposed to strip to his sleeveless t-shirt. He unbuttons his outer shirt, revealing the tight t-shirt underneath. And there he stops. He never takes off his outer shirt. His character, Uncle Louie, simply decides to climb in bed wearing a dress shirt. Backstage, I catch up with him.
Mr. Simon is going to kill me but-- that's not a Louie-like thing to do. But you know what? I don't think anybody out there really cares and is paying that much attention to me wearing a dress shirt when I go to bed. If it makes me do better, I'm going to do it.
During intermission, Mr. Simon came backstage and congratulated all the actors. And he told Jeff that he looked ridiculous. Still, Jeff got more laughs than anyone in the cast. And Mr. Simon resolved to get him a looser-fitting t-shirt for future performances. Opening night, by any measure, was a wildly successful night of theater. They all got laughs. Everyone kept their accents. Everyone remembered their lines. And while everyone was good, Laura, Tiffany, and Jeff were stand-outs.
Bella, sweatheart, don't go to that movie anymore. And don't see that fella again. He may be very nice. But he sounds like he's got a lot of wacky ideas. Do you know what I mean, sweetheart?
Jay, Arty, you said you'd support me. You said you'd back me up. You promised.
Back you up with what? The restaurant? The money? Is that what this guy is after?
He wants more than that.
What could possibly be more than that, Bella?
Me. He loves me. He wants to marry me. I want to marry him. I want to have his children. I want my own babies.
During the big dramatic scenes between Laura and Tiffany, it was just like Mr. Simon predicted. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was that quiet. And after the last scene, after the bows, they run from the dressing room, up some stairs, through a door, and out into the lobby where their friends and families are.
You were so good.
Mr. Simon found them all. He told them the show went just as he'd dreamt of. And when he spotted Laura, he hugged her.
Well-- oh my god-- I don't know what to say to you. You were so fabulous. That scene with you and Mama was-- you blew me away. Every moment tonight was perfect. It was the best you've ever been. I mean, I was crying through half of it. I'm so grateful. You have come so far. It really was-- it really was.
And while they stood in the lobby, a pair of young girls, someone's sisters, ran up to the different performers, thrilled, starstruck. They said a few words and ran off, nervous and excited.
[MUSIC- "SHOWTIME" BY SAMMY DAVIS, JR.]
It's This American Life, our special drama bug edition. And now we continue our dramatic little presentation with David Sedaris, the second half of his story.
I had the drama bug and Lois had a car. This being the case, I quickly forgave her when informed that the visiting actor had scheduled a production of Hamlet set to take place at the amphitheatre of the Raleigh Rose Garden. He, himself, would direct and play the title role. But the other parts were up for grabs. We went to the audition, and, because we were the youngest, Lois and I were assigned the roles of the traveling players Hamlet uses to bate his Uncle Claudius. It wasn't the part I was hoping for, but I accepted it with a quiet dignity. I still had a few speeches and planned to use them to the best of my ability, outshining the other actors who were all much older than I.
They were in their 20s and 30s and carried years of experience in such long-running outdoor dramas as The Lost Colony and Tender is the Lamb. These were professionals and I hoped to benefit from their experience, sitting literally at their feet as the director paced the lip of the stage, addressing his clenched fist as, "poor Yorick."
I worshipped these people. Lois slept with them. By the second week of rehearsal, she had taken up with Laertes, who she claimed had a real way with the sword. Unlike me, she was embraced by the older crowd, attending late-night keg parties with Polonius and Ophelia, driving to the lake with the director while Gertrude and Rosenkrantz made out in the backseat.
The killer was that Lois was nowhere near as committed as I was. Her drama bug was the equivalent of a 24-hour-flu. Yet there she was, swimming naked with the director himself, while I practiced lines alone in my room.
As traveling players, it was decided that we would make our entrance tumbling onto the stage. When Lois complained that the grass was irritating her skin, the director examined the wee pimples on her back and decided that, rather than tumbling, the players would enter skipping. I had practiced my tumble until my brain lost its mooring and could be heard rattling in my skull. And now, on the basis of one complaint, we were skipping.
He'd already cut out all of my speeches, leaving me with one line, "Aye, my Lord." While the other actors strolled the rose gardens memorizing their vengeful soliloquies, I skipped back and forth across the parking lot whispering, "Aye, my Lord. Aye, my Lord." Lois felt silly skipping and spoke to the director, who praised her instincts and announced that henceforth, the players would enter walking.
The less I had to do, the more my fellow actors used me as a personal slave. I would have been happy to help them run lines. But instead, they wanted me to polish their crowns or trot out to the car and search the floorboards for their dagger.
"Looking for something to do? You can help Dugan glow tape the stage," the director said. "You can chase the spiders out of the dressing room, or better yet, run to the store. Who wants drinks?"
Not only did Lois lay in the shade doing nothing, but she was the first one to hand me a $20 bill when placing an order for a $0.30 candy bar. During rehearsal breaks, she huddled with the actors while I was off anchoring ladders for one of the technicians. When it came time for our big scene, Lois recited her lines as if she were reading the words from the surface of some distant billboard. She squinted and paused between syllables, punctuating each word with a question mark. If the director had a problem with her performance, he kept it to himself.
I, on the other hand-- I needed to remove the sweater from around my neck, walk slower, and drop the accent. It might have been easier to accept the criticism had he spread it around a little, but that seemed unlikely. She could enter the stage with a slice of pizza in one hand and a Dr. Pepper in the other and that was fine, Lois, just great.
By this point, I was finding my own way home from rehearsal. Lois couldn't give me a ride if she was always rushing off to some party or restaurant with, what she referred to as, "the gang from Elsinore." I would wave them off and wait in the parking lot for one of my parents to drive me home.
"The thing to remember," my mother said, "Is that 10 years from now, you could wake up underneath one of these people and have no idea you'd ever even seen them before. Time passes. You'll see. Enough liquor and people can forget anything. Don't let it get to you. If nothing else, it's taught you to skim the change while buying their drinks."
I didn't appreciate her casual attitude. But the business with the change was insightful. My mother had the vengeful part down. It was the craft of acting I thought she knew nothing about.
We were in dress rehearsal when the director approached Lois in regards to a production he had planned for the fall. This was to be a musical based on the lives of roving gypsies, and he had her in mind for the role of a lusty bandit. Lois couldn't sing. Everybody knew that. Neither could she act or play the tambourine. I watched the man kneel down in the grass and literally beg her to accept the part.
When I expressed an interest, he suggested I might enjoy working behind the scenes in some backstage capacity. He meant for me to hang lights or lug scenery, to turn into one of those guys with low-riding pants and a belt burdened with wrenches and thick roles of gaffer's tape. Anyone thinking I might be trusted with electrical wiring had to be a complete idiot. And that's what this man was.
I looked at him clearly then, noticing how his tights made a mockery of his slack calves and dumpy little basket. If he was such a big, stinking deal, what was he doing in Raleigh, North Carolina? His blow-dried hair, the Cuban-heeled shoes and rainbow-striped suspenders-- it was all a sham. Why wear tights with suspenders when their only redeeming feature was that they promised to stay up on their own?
And acting? The man performed as though everyone around him sported a shrimp-sized hearing aid clamped to their ear. He shouted his lines, grinning like a jack-o-lantern and flailing his hands as if he were fighting off gnats. His was a form of acting that never fails to embarrass me. It's the same feeling I get when watching someone hawk a vegetable slicer or deliver a singing telegram. You know it's supposed to sound convincing. But you can't get beyond the sad fact that this person actually thinks he's bringing some joy into your life. Somewhere he's got a mother sifting through a shoe box of mimeographed playbills, pouring herself another drink and wondering when her son is going to come to his senses and swallow some drain cleaner.
I saw Hamlet for the man he was and, in the process, saw myself as a sort of sad sack Yorick who would blindly follow along behind him.
My parents attended the opening night performance. Following my, "Aye, my Lord," I laid on the grass as Lois poured a false vile of poison into my ear. As I lay dying, I opened my eyes enough to see my father sleeping, my mother stretched out beside him fighting off the moths who, along with a few dozen humans, had been attracted by the bright light.
There was a cast party afterwards, but I didn't go. I changed my clothes in the dressing room where the actors stood congratulating one another. Horatio asked me to run to the store for some cigarettes and I pocketed his money, promising to return with lightning speed.
"You were the best in the whole show," my mother said, stopping for frozen pizza on her way home. "I mean it. You walked onto that stage and all eyes went right for you." It occurred to me then that my mother was a better actor than I could ever hope to be. Acting is different than posing or pretending. When done well, it bears a striking resemblance to lying. I didn't envy my mother's skill. Neither did I contradict her. That's how convincing she was. It seemed best, sitting beside her with a frozen pizza thawing on my lap, to simply sit back and learn.
David Sedaris lives in New York City. He's the author of Barrel Fever. "Drama Bug" is from an upcoming book.
[MUSIC- "THE MAN WHO MAKES YOU LAUGH" BY ANTHONY NEWLEY]
I know this song is just getting better and better. But we don't have time to play the whole thing, and we have to spin head towards the end so you can hear this. This is just too good. Hold on. Here we go. Again just spinning ahead on our little tape machine so you can hear the end of this. Here we go.
[MUSIC- "THE MAN WHO MAKES YOU LAUGH" BY ANTHONY NEWLEY]
Act One: More Drama
The song stylings of Mr. Anthony Newley here on This American Life. Act Three, "From the Audience Seats." OK, so you mean to go to the theater. That was so Baltimore, the way I just said that. OK, so you know you want to go to the movies. So you mean to go to the theater-- I'm from Baltimore so the accent creeps out sometimes-- so you mean to go to the theater. But it's so much trouble. And it's so much time. And tickets are expensive, and you have to pay the sitter, and there's parking, and yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mark O'Brien faces obstacles even more harsh than this to attend the theater. Because he had polio when he was a kid, he's in an iron lung. He can come out of the iron lung for a limited amount of time, though, and for a while-- as unlikely as this sounds-- he would use that time to go to plays. We offer this little piece of writing as an extreme example of what some people will go through, as audience, when they get the drama bug.
The first time I attended a performance of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, they did Hamlet in the round. It began when a man pushed a wheelbarrow on stage, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] through a trap door that trundled down a ramp three feet from me. The guards ran onstage dressed in Green Beret uniforms. I was hooked.
After that, I went to every performance I could. The festival allowed a friend in for free. So every summer, I rented vans equipped with wheelchair lifts to take us to the park. The season's tickets cost more than $100, expensive for someone living on SSI. But as a friend told me, culture is what we live for, the reason we put up with bills, smog, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
The stage, surrounded by tall trees, faced a natural amphitheatre. I sat right next to the elevated stage [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. One of the light stands. One year, I bought two tickets for each performance. During a night performance of Coriolanus, the actor, the lead, dressed like a 20th century admiral, tore off his epaulets and hurled them offstage, nearly hitting me. The following week, the actor approached me before showtime.
"I'm surprised you're back," he said, "I thought I might've killed you with those epaulets." I was so excited to meet him that I forgot to ask for his autograph.
Every performance was exciting because it was live and things might go wrong. Things seldom went wrong, but still there was always that chance. You [UNINTELLIGIBLE] that advantage from the deadly perfect land of movies and television.
I love seeing the same actor take on different roles. One actor, who imitated Johnny Carson, who played the clown, Touchstone, for As You Like It-- the following week he was Richard II, the tyrannical, blustering king who becomes more eloquent, more human, after he's overthrown and imprisoned.
After many years in the park, the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival moved to a new amphitheatre in the suburbs. The stage area is half a mile from the entrance. When we reached our seats, I saw there wasn't a speck of shade. At 4:00 in the afternoon, it was well over 80. We often suffer for the things we love. This could be as true of Shakespeare as anything else. As an English major accustomed to the five-word sentences and flat inflections of Californians, I found Shakespeare's heightened sense of language intoxicating. It's not just the thees and thous. It's the metaphors, the jokes, the rhythms of the poetry and the jostling, bubbling, prose. So I thought I would suffer gladly for these pleasures.
I stayed in that blast furnace of language too long. The heat made me so weak that I couldn't drink any water. I became ill and had to be hospitalized. In the hospital, I clapped [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I turned blue whenever the iron lung was off for more than three minutes. My doctor thought I would die. It took me six weeks to become well enough to leave the hospital. I told people I nearly became the first person to die from Shakespeare. It could be worse. Abraham Lincoln died from a lousy comedy.
Mike O'Brien lives in Berkeley, California. He's a writer and poet, author of a book of poems called Breathing. His email address, Marko-- that's M-A-R-K-O-- @well.com.
Act Three: From The Audience Seats
I noticed my mother's face assume an expression she reserved for unspeakable horror. I had seen this look only twice before. Once when she was caught in the path of a charging, rabid pig and once again when I told her I wanted a peach-colored velveteen blazer with matching slacks.
Back next week with more stories of This American Life.