The other day, Silas asked me what the first show I directed was. My go-to answer is a pair of one-acts, selected by my high school drama teacher, when I was 14 (tenth grade). They were Sorry, Wrong Number and What Button to Press. The former was a radio drama adapted for the stage, and the latter–all I remember is the title. The process was an unending power struggle with the peers I was directing. My lead got the flu on opening night and was hallucinating on stage. A professor from our state university–some one I had admired for a long time–came to see it, and I died of embarrassment.
But maybe because of the celebratory season, I suddenly remembered my actual first play. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher decided that our class wouldn’t participate in the school holiday pageant, because it was too much work. Along with a few friends, I convinced her that we should do it, but she wouldn’t have to do anything.
My memories of what actually happened are pretty fuzzy. I know I had a hand in writing the script, but I don’t remember if my friends worked on it with me. I remember the story–it was about Rudolph’s nose bulb burning out. He had to go to an elf hardware store, where there were some Laurel and Hardy antics with ladders (my adult self is shuddering at this–no licenced fight choreographers were involved!). He found a bulb that was too big, too small, and then finally just right. Christmas was saved!
I remember that it was one of the few things I did in elementary school that was an unmitigated success. I was, to say the least, not a popular child. My classmates gave me credit for saving the Christmas pageant–we didn’t want to be the only class that didn’t participate! It was also one of my first great collaborative experiences. Some of the kids did props, others organized costumes, others pulled together what set pieces we needed. Somebody picked a song for the end, although I don’t remember what it was.
I’m glad to have recovered this memory, something I had completely forgotten about, because it’s a much more positive story than my usual answer when people ask me how I got into directing (short version: My high school theater teacher told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be an actor…).
It’s a funny thing–I don’t think I have any pictures from it, and I know that the script is long gone. I don’t remember if my parents even came, as it was in the middle of the school day and they were working. It was just a thing I did, like so many things I did, no different from orchestra or choir. Nothing marked it as special or noteworthy. Maybe if I had had a different (better) teacher that year, she would have pointed out that I pulled off something remarkable. But a better teacher wouldn’t have given me that opportunity.
All these years later, I’m grateful for her mediocrity, because it made space for me to work. I’m grateful to my classmates for giving me the opportunity to lead and for being part of that crazy production. And I’m grateful to have remembered this joyful beginning.