In my previous life I taught middle school English and drama, sort of. Folks often ask me what that experience was like. I usually say, “It was a cross between cat herding and being a crash test dummy”. Somehow that conveys the totality and futility of it all. Now, certainly, there were many fun moments. As I recall the drama moments greatest hits, some were planned and others just erupted dramatically.
I should lower your expectations bar for the concept of drama. Every six weeks I’d get a new crop of seventh graders who had all levels of talent or not. By the end of five weeks we would put on three or four twenty-five minute mini-plays. Some came from legitimate play books the school subscribed to; others came from the kids’ original minds, or should I say aboriginal? In any event many memorable moments bubble up now and again and bring me soft chuckles.
One of my first such plays was about a hillbilly feud between the Fudge and the Candy families in Possum Holler, Kentucky. The climax of this farcical playetta came when the silent Granpa Candy finally spoke in one accusing sentence, “That there man is a Fudge!” All heck broke loose as the Fudges and Candies fought for no other reason than feudal etiquette. During one performance the floppy paper set fell forward onto the actors. Amazingly, one of the boy actors caught the set and walked it back into place while cleverly ad libbing, “Ma, this cabin is falling apart. We gots to move.” The audience of bewildered seventh graders, of course, thought the collapse was just part of the show. Later, one of the somewhat cynical eighth grade teachers observed, “I’m not sure which is better: when the kids know their lines or when they make them up?” I was not sure either, but the more memorable moments were when spontaneity had to ride in for a rescue, which happened frequently because our plays needed rescuing.
There was the time when Deion, our narrator, totally froze at the start of a play. His job was simply to welcome the audience and introduce the play after the music died down and the lights came up. Instead he did a glacier impression. Kids giggled at his frozen awkwardness. Behind the paper set the other players looked at me in a panic and whispered, “What are we gonna do now?” I reassured them with hand gestures as I assessed the situation. Then I cupped my hands and bellowed out, “Deion, this is God speaking. I want you to repeat after me what I tell you.”
Deion broke into a tight, dry-throated voice, “Yes, God.”
We did a call and repeat format until he got back into reality. Once again, the audience was amazed at the creative genius involved in the forgetful narrator skit to open up the play. It was nothing really. Really.
On another occasion, and this will serve anachronistic purposes, we had a murder mystery complete with two play guns. Yes, I kept fake handguns in the props box before the Columbine tragedy. Anyway, at the end of one scene an actor is shot by the cap gun and falls to the floor as the lights go to black. The shot character was supposed to then exit in the dark, which he failed to do. So the next scene began comically with two living characters trying not to look at the “dead one”, who had missed his exit. Once again the kids backstage looked to me to solve this disaster. I cued two boys to retrieve the body on my command. I finger counted down 3, 2, 1, and cupped my hands around my mouth, uttering a Walmart clean up order, “Carcass removal. Carcass removal.” The funeral attendants walked out officiously and removed the unfortunate carcass. You guessed it: the audience thought this detail was brilliant slapstick theater.
These sort of single bullet mistakes were easily overcome. Others required personal appearances to pull the fiery fat out of the smoldering barbeque. Inevitably kids would get sick or miss school on play days. Often another student would fill in. More than once we had a savant type kid who knew everyone’s lines. Unfortunately there were other times when more than one kid was absent and I had to fill in for the missing character. On one occasion I needed to be two characters in the same play at the same time, one male the other female. In a matter of minutes backstage I put on a woman’s wig and house dress over my teacher clothes. The pair of characters were supposed to speak to each other on a park bench. Undeterred by sane expectations, I entered as the woman who spoke first. As she finished her lines, I abruptly yanked the wig off and pulled the dress back, while striking a very virile posture facing the opposite direction. This rapid fire switching was so captivating that the lines I spouted made no sense at all, nor did they have to. The audience howled at the woman, man, woman, man switches, which was the larger message after all.
Perhaps the ultimate deception came in the circus play which my students wrote and created without a lot of help from me. In fact, I didn’t have to intervene at all in the great circus play. It featured a snake charmer with a real boa constrictor in a basket. There was the incredible Zorando the Magician, who appeared to cut poor Liz in half with a rusty crosscut saw. His attendants carefully placed Liz’s head at one end of the stage and her wiggling feet at the other end, although the legs actually belonged to a short boy named Bobby. The easily fooled audience were agog at the trick. However, the ultimate coup d’etat came when a ceiling tile came unhinged and spilled confetti all over the audience while a strobe light flickered in the darkness. At the conclusion of that deus ex machina, an enthralled boy named Jimmy gasped, “How did you get the guy out of the ceiling?”
Easy. There was no guy in the ceiling. It was all just hypnotic suggestion, which is what teaching sometimes is.