I don't remember the first play my parents took me to see. I know it was Charlotte's Web but the only thing I remember from it was that I got a plastic spider ring at the end of the play and I just loved wearing that thing. I guess you could say my first lasting impression of theatre was the jewelry.
What I remember as my first OK I LIKE THEATRE STUFF moment happened in 4th grade. I was trying to write a play but I was frustrated because my mind went faster than I could write. I complained to my dad about it and he very kindly agreed that when he tucked me in at night I could dictate the play to him. I remember there was some sort of limit set, because I could have just kept going that first night until the play was done. I don't remember if it was a time limit or a page limit, but I would just lie in bed and Dad would stand next to my bed and write everything that came out of my mouth. It was Cindy - an adaptation of Cinderella. When it was done, it was like 20 pages long and chock-a-block with 4th grade humor about cutting the cheese and wall-to-wall with what a 10 year old girl thinks falling in love is going to be like. Oh, and it was a musical. I was obsessed with Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 tape, so I worked the story around the songs. Like when Cindy, after having met Paul (the substitute for the Prince) was mooning over him in her room, she said to her best friend, "I miss him much." Cue the timeless Janet Jackson classic "I Miss You Much."
Here's the amazing thing (even more amazing now that I'm older and I know how hard this must have been for my dad): Dad never once laughed at me, never once questioned the dramaturgical necessity of "Escapade," and never once suggested a change a line. The only things he said to me were, "Hold on, hold on I'm still writing," and "Who is saying this line?" Once the play was finished, I was so excited I could hardly get to sleep. Dad helped me further by typing it up for me on the computer. I could sort of type but it would have taken me a month to try to do the whole thing, whereas he was able to punch it out in a couple of hours.
When it was finished, I dragged him out to our back patio to show him where everyone would stand in which scenes. I had it all worked out in my head. I brought the play in to show my teachers. Most of them were impressed that one of their nerdy 4th graders spent her free time writing a play (and probably impressed that my parents paid attention to me enough to help out). I will never forget the anger I felt when Ms. B, my English teacher who had cruelly made us read The Red Badge of Courage, remarked that it was not possible I did this alone. I admitted that Dad had written it out for me because my hands couldn't go fast enough and I really couldn't type either, but I insisted that the content was all mine. She didn't believe me.
That's when I found out that my mother is a truly terrifying woman to those who doubt the talents of her offspring. She marched up to school and...well, I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if my mother threatened to come after her if she ever tried to squelch my artistic ambitions again, but that might just be my gin-damaged adult brain knowing how fierce my mom is. Not surprisingly, when I asked a different teacher if I could put the play on for the class, my wish was granted. (Looking back, Ms. B was a miserable divorcee who had to deal with precocious 4th graders many years ahead of their reading level, and who was a chain smoker not permitted to smoke for many hours at a time. She and my mom were great adversaries because they were both fairly scary.)
Do you see the fairy tale within the fairy tale here? The privileged little girl whose parents love her very much blast obstacles out of her path to artistic freedom. It's a classic.
So, I got to direct the show I wrote! And because of that, I cast the boy I had a crush on for many years as Paul and I cast my painfully shy best friend as Cindy. My butch-ish friend and my other painfully shy friend were the stepsisters. The girl I always hated/envied was cast as the evil stepmother. I don't remember who else was in it. And my first gay friend was cast as Paul's right hand man and also did the choreography because he knew all the dances- EVER. And we did the play in school, in the middle of the day. I had a purple boom box that I brought in to play the tape on (there was lip syncing to all of the songs of course) and I got to wear a regular dress instead of my uniform because it was a big day for me. The other reason I got to wear a cute party dress was because my painfully shy best friend who was playing the lead role refused to dance or lip sync in front of our peers. So at those points in the script I would step in and do it for her. She was so very shy that I could barely hear her lines and I kept thinking "I should have just done this myself!" This is probably why Tarantino is in all of his own movies.
I have a very clear memory of five minutes before the play was set to begin, standing in the coat closet, freaking out because I realized that no one except the choreographer (of course) had bothered to memorize their lines. My other teacher, Mrs. G, came into the back to calm me down. She said, "Slow down. It's going to be okay. No one expects it to be perfect." And I looked her square in the face and said, "Well, I do!" And I remember she laughed and gave me a hug and told me to make sure the boom box was turned on.
In the end, I have no memory of the play except when I performed "I Miss You Much" and kept seeing my dear friend the choreographer out of the corner of my eye, doing the dance "with me" offstage in the coat closet. He was an amazing dancer - he taught me "If" and "Vogue" and so many other dances from the very early 90s. It was a special time for us.
I've been thinking about Cindy a lot lately. I've been examining that first theatre experience, that "Let's put on a show!" mentality, and trying to figure out where it came from and why it has stayed with me. My parents have been the most supportive people from the moment the word "play" crossed my lips - they have done everything in their power to make sure I know that they believe in me and I am very grateful for that.
As Gigi and I dive back into writing for our upcoming holiday show, Chlamydia for Christmas and Herpes for Hanukkah: More Sex-Ed Burlesque for the Holidays, I keep coming back to this first experience in 4th grade. There is something about the urgency of writing it, the excitement of putting it on for my classmates and teachers, my expectation that it be perfect...something in there I need to harness. I know a lot has changed about me in the intervening years, but in my heart, I get excited about theatre I get to create. I've started to panic about this new piece not being any good, but I need to shut that voice up hard. And I think it needs to start just the way it did before, with me and a pencil and a piece of paper. Thank god my writing and typing skills have sped up in the years since Cindy; I just don't think my dad could help himself from offering dramaturgical suggestions this time around.
most this little post was originally written in my livejournal (yes I still have one of those) a couple of years ago, but the last bit has been updated.