I was so excited in fourth grade about an upcoming morning performance. We had been assigned the roles and given text to study for a theatrical. There were three of us to perform: a short boy, a rather dim young girl and myself. The event would take place in homeroom just after prayers and the pledge of allegiance. We were to prepare the material on our own and unrehearsed go from classroom to classroom to perform for our eager little classmates. The average number of children in one of these classes was 30, our average age was 10 and the average attention span was 30 seconds.
I had prepared mostly by searching out props. I had a hat, a chalkboard pointer and the text I was to read. We had been told we may use our text as reference and did not need to memorize or be “off book”. The three of us waited in the hall as we were introduced to our public. I remember my nervous excitement and my loud flourishing entrance while brandishing hat/text/pointer. Beginning my lines as I entered I believed I could walk and talk at the same time. I am sure I saw some actor make an entrance in this way and I was impressed.
Then my mind went blank, just as dry as the desert. Even with my text in hand I couldn’t think of one word. I just kept looking into my hat and gesticulating with the pointer. I looked out at the sea of supportive (mocking) faces of my fellow (dim) 10yr old eating – sleeping – teasing machines. The potential for months of ridicule on the playground was huge and the gleeful glimmering eyes were already starting to look menacing. I am sure I could see the beginning of toothy smiles.
I decided in that moment to “IMPROVISE”. From where I knew this term I have no idea but it seemed the right thing to do at the time. Words flew from my mouth and my eloquence astounded me. I was totally centered in the eye of the storm and better verse had never come from an actor anywhere ever in the history of the world! Certainly I was riveting and undoubtedly my audience was spellbound. I experienced that euphoria, the out of body experience when an actor knows everything is working and he is the absolute center of attention.
In what was the first well supported clarion stage whisper I had ever heard, one of my fellow thespians whined to our teacher on the side “He isn’t saying the words he is supposed to”! In a panic of disbelief I heard my other little scene stealing stage dweller say directly to our audience. “ He is not saying what he is supposed to be saying! He is making everything up!” She began crying as the other actor-seedling behind me started laughing and the class at large followed suit.
The teacher in charge of this little theatrical was a daunting – black clad – constantly rustling – crucifix wielding Catholic Nun who found herself suddenly outnumbered. Our omnipotent authority figure had clearly studied classroom management and tried to retake control of the room. She grabbed my pointer and began slamming it against the desk repeatedly and yelling for quiet. I thundered over this chaos (as would any would-be actor and sibling of Valkyries) and in my best supported stage voice bellowed: “I was improvising that scene and these two were supposed to “go” with it. “ I threw my hat and inferior drivel of text onto the floor and made a sweeping grand exit.
I was elated and rushing with adrenaline as I stormed down the hallway to the Boys’ room. It was clear to me that the other actors were to blame. It never occurred to me I might have handled this situation differently. I was stage struck! I knew I had “arrived”! My singer-performer ego was already establishing itself like an alien life force. I was 10 years old and I had learned two things. I wanted to be back out there in the eye of the storm center stage and English was my least favorite language to work in for the rest of my performing life.