Light Up the Sky
Tonight, our son has his first opening night in a high school play, Galileo. I’m on the East Coast for work and will miss his performance, but I will be there tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday. As I woke in an unfamiliar bed in a lovely inn this morning, I remembered the sense of excitement I always felt the morning before we opened a play—equal measures of anticipation and butterflies.
“When I was your age,” I told my son yesterday, “During tech week, I just wanted school to be over to get to rehearsal? Do you feel like that?”
We were packing up the make up we had staggered into CVS at 10:00 the night before: foundation, eye shadow, neutral lipsticks. I had forgotten he would need make up.
“I guess. Sort of,” he offered.
Our children do not always do what we love. My daughters were gymnasts. My son played soccer. But theatre is in the center of the Venn diagram of our family’s overlapping interests. Atticus’ opening night brings my own time on stage flooding back.
In First Grade I starred as Chicken Little, sporting a bright yellow ensemble, replete with tail feathers, maybe a headpiece? I skittered onto the stage of the assembly room to announce, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling…” Who knew I had been type cast, worrying as natural to me as breathing? Often, I think Chicken Little and Cassandra on the ramparts of Troy are the same character, doomed to speak a truth no one wants to hear. It was good training for being a mother, a headmistress. No matter. From that moment, my truth was theatre.
In the summer, I went to the playhouse in Eagles Mere, watching shows again and again, thrilled to play a little blind girl in The Miracle Worker and a little no-neck monster in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. My imagination was my super power. I lived to read and act and imagine.
In third grade, I was costumed as Sara Noble and memorized a monologue to share during my second grade teacher’s graduate school class. My calico dress had a red and white sprig. I carried a basket. I felt so proud and pleased to be asked. I have no memory of my performance, but I had a clear speaking voice and was loud enough to be easily heard. In fifth grade, I lay on a construction paper beach as Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins—by vote of the class—an odd way to cast a play.
I love, loved, am still in love with, will always love make believe. I keep a finger puppet in my purse—a wizard dog. You never know when some pretend play will be necessary. I whip it out frequently on planes to quiet querulous passengers—usually children. Theatre is make-believe. I found my place there.
In the fall of tenth grade, a wise English teacher sent me to audition for Our Town at Haverford, the boys’ school my brother had gone to before he left for boarding school, before he died in a car accident in early August before he was to have gone off to college. That play confirmed my path, let me grieve because Thornton Wilder wrote a play that allowed me to begin to process my grief.
In high school, our plays were more sophisticated—real sets and costumes and lights—bright fresnels and lekos making us squint as we looked out at the audience. I was in productions at Agnes Irwin, my own all girls’ school, but there were more plays to be in at the two all boys’ schools. Soon, I was never not in a show—a habit that led to procrastination in terms of schoolwork, but a hunger that needed to be fed, that kept me moving forward.
I loved the process—repeated show to show, the traditions, the sense of community, the tolerance of big emotions. First, auditions, then clumsy read-throughs, rehearsals when we might see a glimmer of what the performance could be, a surprising run through that went well, a dress rehearsal that suggested doom. Tech Week nights were long and thrilling—we ate Oreos and Tony’s cheesesteaks—meat and onions and ketchup on long greasy buns. We fretted occasionally about homework left undone as we lurched towards a show that would make us proud, but we were deep in, fully committed, determined to make a great play. At home, I would wash off my stage makeup—or I wouldn’t because I liked how it made me look—mysterious, not like myself--and I’d fall into bed, deeply satisfied.
I specialized in old ladies. “You’re a character actress,” Mr. Worth at the boys’ school told me once, not unkindly, but not the identity I would have chosen. What ugly duckling doesn’t yearn to be the ingénue? I felt real envy that lovely Julie played Emily in Our Town, while I played the Woman in the Balcony. She had a love scene with Doug. I grew to have Doug’s friendship. In The Mousetrap, Doug gently murdered me, Mrs. Boyle, an annoying guest, several nights in a row. I wore a yellow wig as the owner of the carousel in Carousel and cackled at dreamy John Langfitt, but his character, Billy Bigelow, loved Julie Jordan—tall, gorgeous Tracey, one of my classmates.
In that hideous straw colored wig, I heard my father whisper, “Where’s Ann?” from his seat in the front row. My mother lent anything—props, furniture—to our theatrical endeavors. Once, when the lights went up, my father, who had been traveling, breathed too loudly: “It’s our living room.” And it was—sofa, end tables, grandfather clock, oriental carpet, waste basket. I loved my mother’s generosity, her easy banter with the boys who came to load—ever so gently—our furniture into a pick-up truck. Her generosity made me indispensable. I loved that, too. As Seniors, Corky and I played the two murdering sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace, running up a flight of stairs where the boys on the crew painted a warning up the steps, visible to us but invisible to the audience: WALLS WET—DON’T TOUCH.
I loved the costumes, the faint smell of perspiration clinging to the rack, a combination of old, formerly worn items mixed with baby powder and deodorant. I could always find the missing suspenders, the errant bow tie, the slip that had fallen off its hanger. I could sew a little, too, so I was the one to put a button back on or mend a tear.
Before You-Tube, I learned to do age makeup from a book, blending shadows and drawing lines with eyebrow pencils to create the valleys and contours I now possess. I arranged countless pompadours, buns, twists—ironic since my own hair is rarely styled. I could age a classmate’s head with baby power and spray dye. The faucets in the boys’ school gymnasium—our backstage--ran only cold water. My face felt stretched across my bones under the cold wet sponge thick with pancake make up—those round cakes were made by Ben Nye, and you had to wet the sponge the soften the cake to spread the foundation across your face. I filled my make up box—originally my brother’s red tackle box, left unclaimed in his empty room—with lipsticks and pots of cream shadow and tiny sponges. I knew never to share mascara! A tiny brass crane—no more than 2 inches tall—found its way to the bottom of the box—and is still there, I suspect. A talisman whose origins are unknown. My fingers caressed it before each performance. The box and the heron must still be in Eagles Mere in our barn, my brother’s name, James R. Klotz, embossed in white letters on a black plastic strip.
“Five minutes,” the stage manager would call.
“Thank you, five,” we’d chorus, making our way to the wings, waiting for “Places,” for the lights to dim to black and then come up, listening to the hummed rustle of the audience begin to quiet, squinting up at the bright grid, so excited to share our work, hoping all the cues would happen as required. After, hugging in triumph, we’d drive to cast parties, where parents seemed oblivious to the keg in the front yard, the cloying smell of weed. Because my brother had died, I was the squeaky-clean, designated driver, the one who cleaned up, kept the rest of them safe, welcomed entirely by this tribe but never pressured to indulge. They all knew my story. Boys who take big risks end up dead. I took risks only on stage.
I remembered the feeling of sleeping late on Sunday morning after the last performance, stretching languorously, feeling dejected and mournful, already focused on anticipating the next production.
Junior year, my heart broke when, during auditions for Charley’s Aunt—my beloved Doug’s last play—the director asked me to come down from the stage and sent Laura up. He switched some others, too, and eventually said, “You are looking at the cast.” I was in the audience, not onstage. Even as I fled the basement, not wanting everyone to see me cry, I knew this was a cruel way to cast a play. As I pulled out of the boys’ school’s driveway, Doug flagged me down.
“Ansky,” he said softly, “It’s my last show. I thought you’d be in it with--I mean, I just assumed—promise me, you’ll work on it?”
Ansky. That was his name for me. I melted, instantly agreeing to stage manage, ending up with 37 stitches down the side of my nose, thanks to a nail in a piece of errant scenery. And because of that accident, when Doug asked what he could do for me, I took advantage of my huge pressure bandage at the cast party I had refused to miss to ask him to take me to my prom. Packing up the contents of my mother’s house, years ago, in my old room, I found all of my programs in a box, signed with the effusions that characterize theatre kids and withered rose petals, lovingly pressed between black and white publicity shots of various productions.
Theatre gave me purpose, gave me a home, a path through all the feelings no one could talk about in our family. The summer after Junior year, I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study theatre: voice and movement and script analysis. I was thirsty, insatiable to learn all I could. But when, at summer’s end, they offered me a place in the freshman class, I turned it down. I could not imagine missing my senior year, leaving home—and that choice, I suspect, was the first hint that I wasn’t meant to be an actor. I didn’t want it enough, to the exclusion of every other interest.
Even after Charley’s Aunt, there were more plays: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where I played the Player. In college, my Lady Bracknell was reviewed as possessing the quality of flat ginger ale, a review so stinging I recall it forty years later. I played Aunt Ev in The Miracle Worker and that brought me Seth, so, though the part stunk, the outcome was worthwhile.
But it was in college that the real miracle happened. I discovered that I was a director. Only now at 58, am I approaching the age of the roles I was born to play—but to shape the experience—from auditions to strike—was the right role for me. I discovered how much I loved collaborating with a team of designers, setting the vision, planning rehearsals, cajoling actors into taking risks, finding truth, building trust. Before we were even married, Seth and I made a summer program for high school actors—and we ran it for 27 summers. It was a glorious long run. I learned I was an acting teacher, able to help my students unlock the truth and vulnerability I found it hard to access on my own. I went from being backstage, shivering in the wings, my fingers tingling, to being front of house, notebook perched on a music stand with a blue gel dimming the clip light attached to the stand, waiting, holding my breath, so awed by the bravery of the young people on the stage.
Then that chapter ended, too. I became a headmistress, no longer a drama teacher. My daughters, students in the school I led, made it clear they didn’t want me near the theatre. I could watch—from a distance. Miranda became an extraordinarily competent stage manager. Cordelia appeared luminous as Jo in Little Women, Cassandra in Trojan Women, in play after play in college. She pursues her career as an actor every day.
And tonight, Atticus will appear as Cosimo deMedici in Brecht’s Galileo. My only job was to bring a case of water and some snacks to their Sunday rehearsal. I will sit in the audience and watch, holding my breath that all goes well for him. I will remember, too, the girl I was a long time ago, who lived from play to play
My drama self pushes against all the other roles I play. Each spring, I make a play with the little girls in my school, a different iteration of my director self, but not a bad one. They get costumes, but no make up.
“Light up the sky!” I say to every cast in my care. If I squint, I imagine I can still see the fleshy streaks of make up left on the sink in the Haverford School dressing room. I wipe it up with a scrap of toilet paper, tidy the bobby pins, and turn out the light. I carry that girl—that useful girl—with me every day.