Drama Camp and High Drama
(Today’s post is from a prompt, “The Class.”)
In 1970, we’d left South Dakota for Minneapolis, and we were expected to adjust. My sister made friends, but it was hot outside. I don’t do hot, not now, not then.
I was perfectly happy to stay indoors watching “Dark Shadows” and playing a cutthroat version of gin rummy with my older brother. Darkened rooms, vampires, intense card games–there was no such thing yet, but we might have been Goth forerunners.
You’d think our contented happiness would have counted for something, but Mom was not a fan of our housebound state. She announced that she’d signed me up for a children’s theater day camp at a local school.
I was aghast.
For one thing, this day camp was at a school and I hated schools. And this was an activity, and I didn’t do activities.
Also, I thought my mother liked me.
Furthermore, my mother had never in my short life signed me up for a thing besides swimming lessons at the YMCA in Aberdeen, and we had to wear swim caps and mine gave me my very first migraine at age seven so I was excused from further classes after I vomited in the pool gutter, sobbing and blinded by auras.
I’d hoped that debacle was enough to excuse me from any further activities that weren’t mandated by law, but Mom was firm. “You’ll enjoy it,” she told me. That was less of a reassurance and more of a command.
Whether or not I wanted to go, I would.
This honestly was not like my mother. I think she’d been unduly influenced by my (then) stepfather (soon to be adoptive father). As I’ve mentioned before, he had a good, solid, Minnesota upbringing, replete with standard childhood activities, which he had enjoyed.
I blame him. He must have told my mother I needed to get out of the house more.
At any rate, I’m not sure how she heard about this program. I’m even less sure how she thought it would apply to me. As a child, I was either silent in social situations, or funny. Like, really funny. This “really funny” side was an elaborate coping mechanism for crippling shyness. I hadn’t perfected its construction at age nine or ten. I tended more towards silent, with my mute introversion misinterpreted as either standoffishness or stupidity.
Children’s theater didn’t seem promising.
But, Mom said, so off I went. My expectations were as low as my mood.
The actual class
We met in the gym. I hated schools in part because they contained gyms.
Anyway, on the first day, the teacher passed out a script and explained that we would be building sets, making costumes, and putting on this play. I don’t remember the title. I’ve done a little googling, and turned up nothing. Maybe this play is lost to the mists of time. Maybe she wrote it, because the gender ratio was just right. There were many more girls than boys in that class.
The plot was simple. A King and Queen decide that the Prince has to get married. The Prince enlists the help of a wily Wizard to find him a bride. The Wizard interviews a bunch of princesses, who present themselves for inspection/rejection based on attributes contained in their royal titles.
I don’t remember their actual names, and I don’t remember how many there were, but the idea was straightforward. There was a vain princess, something like Princess Always-Looks-In-the-Mirror. Another was clumsy, so her name was something like Princess Falls-Down. Various attributes, like silliness and greed and gossip, would be mined for the hearty laughs Midwesterners reserve for character flaws. I looked through the roles and knew I was destined for one role.
I remember her royal title very clearly.
Oh, how the doom enveloped me.
I wasn’t lazy (well kinda) but I was tall, taller than all the boys and a few of the teachers at age ten. I’m sure sitting in the house had left me more than a little stocky, too.
I knew my fate. I’d be the large, slow, sleepy princess who would be just one more reject as the Prince made his way to Princess Perfect-And-Definitely-Not-Me.
The teacher retrieved the scripts, and that was that.
The Midwestern Size Penalty
This is an aside. I’m not sure why–perhaps the plenitude of strapping Norwegian women in the Dakotas–but there is a marked preference for petite women in the Midwest. If a girl is small, she is exclaimed over in a sort of low-key way that alludes to her not being any bigger than a minute, and oh my she can’t be any bigger than a four year-old, even though she’s eight, and she’s never going to outgrow that little bike, and so on. There is general admiration for being small.
I mentioned this in front of a South Dakotan cousin recently, and she confirmed that being petite (she is, quite) had been a bonus growing up. Conversely, being out-sized carried a penalty. Large is embarrassing and unwelcome. I was treated as a mentally challenged adult from about second grade onward, slow but certainly capable, forever left in charge when teachers left the room. I was also awarded every out-sized role (The Tallest Christmas Tree!) in any skit or play.
So yeah. Big and Lazy was in my future.
I didn’t quit.
Mom wouldn’t have let me.
The first week, we did various acting class exercises, and worked on set design and construction (surprise! we made a CASTLE). We didn’t start learning the script, because no one knew their roles. We wouldn’t be auditioning. Our teacher would assign the parts, so I’m sure she took that first week to learn who we were, and which roles we would be right for.
To my own surprise, I was having enough fun that I could ignore the looming specter of Princess Too-Lazy-to-Move and immerse myself in the process of putting together a show. I came out from behind my wall of silent shyness, and let my campmates in on my sense of humor.
Mom had been right after all.
I was enjoying myself. Really. Despite the fact that I was in a school gym, and despite the fact that I knew what role I’d get, I had fun.
The fateful day arrived when the teacher would announce our parts. I sat there, that sick resignation settling in my stomach, enduring the wait until my stupid part was called. I was determined to live through the humiliation, carry on, and have fun anyway.
I didn’t have long to wait, because mine was the first name called.
She’d assigned me the Wizard.
I was shocked. Okay, he was male, that wasn’t ideal, but he was the Wizard. He was in every scene. He conducted every interview with every Princess, and he announced the winner. He was the lead, and every boy in that class had announced his intention to play him.
I had no choice but to slay.
We made his hat and wand in the class, but I was in charge of my own robes. I commandeered my mother’s royal blue velour hostess robe and attached stars and moons cut from aluminum foil around the hem. I learned my lines, practicing day and night, possibly adding an ad-lib here and there.
On the day of our performance, my family watched from the audience as I brought down the house as the Wizard.
Why I wrote this.
This is not a story about how acting broke me out of my childhood shell to become a happy, popular child in a new city. My time in Edina was fairly rotten in most regards.
This is also not a story about how a drama camp launched me into acting. I did take acting classes in college and loved them, but I was not drawn to being onstage.
I gave birth to an actor, but I’m not one.
This is just a story about how once in a while, the very best thing happens, instead of the very worst.
Another wonderful story, Karen! I identify with being large in the Midwest; so many of your asides are about my girlhood! If there ever were a play, I knew I’d be the mother or the teacher…I looked middle-aged at twelve. How I would have loved to have been the Wizard!
Pat, wasn’t it nice to get out in the world and discover that there ere some bonuses to being tall, and having a strong physical presence? I was so happy when I came to Portland and found out that the preference for the petite wasn’t universal!