A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Many parts

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…”
--Jacques, As You Like It (Act II, scene vii), William Shakespeare

[Nameless… wordless… swathed in black and creeping purposefully through the shadows… a killer stalked.  Silently, the hooded figure moved forward.  The quarry, unknowing, took a final breath at the cliff-edge.  At last, with a single cold-hearted shove, the murderer sent the victim plunging to certain doom.]
As the slayer strode remorselessly offstage -- as quickly and purposefully as a four-foot-tall person can stride while wearing a sweatshirt that hangs well past her knees -- her hood slipped a bit, and one of her long blonde pigtails sprang out.

Last week, I was part of a small but appreciative audience who were treated to a theatrical smorgasbord of unprecedented oddness: namely, sixteen three-minute(ish) plays written, directed, and acted by children aged 8-15.
The performance was the culmination of my kids’ Spring Break Camp with Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater, and was therefore one of those Things Parents Have To Show Up For.  I expected it to be, at best, cute, and perhaps unintentionally funny.  I did not, however, think it would inspire any degree of artistic contemplation.  But after I watched one of my twin eight-year-olds send a fellow actor to his purported demise, I began to wonder.
The audience giggled, of course.  I did too.   I simply couldn’t help it.  But I knew, in my heart, that Lizzy, the most diminutive of all sixteen playwright/thespians, was not trying to be funny.  She was being, wholeheartedly, The Mysterious Killer.
“All the world’s a stage…”
Acting has always tempted and intrigued me, although I’ve never had much success with it.  As a ten-year-old, I longed to follow in my big sister’s footsteps and earn a lead role in the school play.  I didn’t.  Instead, I was given a green pointy hat and placed among the ignominious horde of awkward elves on the rickety risers at the back of the stage. 
By high school, I was too intimidated by the apparent coolness and popularity of the theater crowd to seriously consider signing up.  Besides, I was busy with the math club and the track team. 
Math meets and track meets did not garner much in the way of audience. Not that it was really an audience I wanted – certainly not in my teen years, when being entirely invisible seemed far more appealing than being noticed.  No, what appealed to me about theater – and what still does – is the idea of being someone else, while still, enigmatically, being myself.
“…and all the men and women merely players …”
Looking through the Spring Break theater program, I noted that Molly was playing the role of “Mother” in two plays, and “Chatty Kathy” (a talkative young woman vying for the hand of a prince via a jump-roping contest) in a third.  Her twin, meanwhile, in addition to playing the nefarious (and seemingly motiveless) murderer, had garnered roles as a boy who befriends a dragon, and as a monster who devours children in their beds. 
I knew that the camp instructors had set things up such that each child, regardless of age or gender, could audition for any role he or she wanted.  Thus, the program reflected, at least to some degree, the parts my kids had chosen to play.  That fascinated me – because, what roles, real or imagined, do any of us choose? 
I’ve never had the luxury of choosing a theatrical role, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to find myself in the roles assigned to me. This past summer, I helped out with Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater’s annual outdoor production.  It was the third time I’d done so.
The first time, years back, I was part of all the crowd scenes in Julius Caesar, including the bludgeoning of an innocent poet.  While I’m not actually in the habit of bludgeoning poets, no matter the odiousness of their doggerel, the role did make me think more deeply about what can happen – and why -- when mob-madness takes hold.
In my second Shakespearean foray, I was assigned to be a dancing shepherdess.  Yes, really.  Dancing.  Also, giggling, flirting, and singing, in a shepherdess-y dress and hair ribbons.    And you know what?  It was hugely fun.  Part of my psyche (unbeknownst to everyone, including myself) actually enjoys giggling, flirting, and -- heaven help the audience -- dancing and singing.
This year, I gathered props, mended costumes, and spent a couple of scenes onstage in a non-speaking role as a “forester”.  There wasn’t much skill required, but in every tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal and each of the show’s thirteen performances, I pretended to be a stalwart member of a down-to-earth woodsy cadre.  I pretended to be terrified of the knife-wielding Orlando.  I pretended to be amused by the banter of my betters, touched by the plight of an exhausted old man, and fascinated by the ruminations of the melancholy Jaques: 
“…they have their exits and their entrances …”
Rather than merely pretending, though, I decided to find the corner of my brain that really, truly, was intrigued by this speech.  As I sat on the stage – which usually meant sitting in a dirty, frigid puddle, because it never stopped goddamn raining last summer – I let my heavy ragged brown dress fall haphazardly around my booted ankles, and I wondered. 
I wondered about the roles we assign ourselves, and the roles we are assigned by others, and how they differ.  I pondered to what degree we really get to be the directors of the ongoing improv shows known as “our own lives”.  I speculated as to what roles my friends, my family, or my kids might cast me in.  I questioned my interpretation of the roles I already play – mother, scientist, outdoor enthusiast, wife, writer, professor, activist, friend, daughter.  I contemplated what other (astonishing, rewarding, hilarious, shocking) roles I might be capable of playing, were I ever to assign them to myself.
Some of these same questions floated back into my head, as I watched sixteen kid-crafted plays unfurl on stage last week. The participants in the Spring Break camp varied widely in their acting and writing abilities, but I found myself more interested in their intent than in their skill.  What iconic roles did they create and fulfill?  Why did the plays include seven mothers (no, eight – I forgot the mother dragon), and only two fathers?  Why were all the parents (even the dragon) so bland, dysfunctional, and naysaying?
Lizzy was not the only kid whose roles reached far outside the realm of the predictable.  The iconoclastic eleven-year-old daughter of my good friends (whom Lizzy blatantly looks up to) was cast as a delightfully spacey father in Molly’s play, as well as a dashing (if argumentative) Romeo.  Then there was a boy – he looked to be about eleven – who put on a lilac wig and a skirt to play the part of “Pretty Lulu”.  I kind of loved that boy. 
Ever since Robert Rosenthal’s 1964 classic classroom experiment showed that merely telling teachers that some (randomly selected) children had great potential caused actual increases in IQ in those kids, study after study has likewise demonstrated that expectations – and the roles we are assigned based on those expectations – deeply impact our reality.  Just knowing this, and having the tiniest inkling of the terrible injustices that it engenders, chafes and angers me.  If the whole world says you’ve got to play the part of “adorable little girl” or “suspicious black teenager” or “skinny white boy who definitely shouldn’t put on a skirt and jump rope” it’s all too easy to just say, Yeah, sure, that’s who I am.  And… that’s who I’m not.
Over the course of a single airplane journey this winter, Lizzy was off-handedly called “Princess” by three different strangers.  All of them were, I’m sure, entirely well-meaning, but I longed to correct them. That little girl in slightly grimy old jeans is not a princess.  Really.  Trust me on this one.  Clearly, each of these men (they were all men) had badly miscast my kid in their personal stage-plays. 
But, to be fair, perhaps I’d miscast them in my own.  I’d assumed, with a shocking lack of creativity, that Guy #2 was “Bored Fiftyish Male TSA Agent”.   But who was he, really?  What if he also played a secret nighttime role?  Perhaps, mentally, I should have called him, “Princess” too. Yes, I’ve removed my laptop from my carry-on, Princess.  Yes, those are my shoes, thanks, Princess.
Maybe it seems frivolous – or even insulting – to imagine random strangers as clandestine drag queens, but I assure you I don’t intend it that way.  To me, humans are intriguing precisely because each of us can, and does, play so many roles.  My most fascinating and wonderful friends – the ones I long to spend more time with -- tend to be individuals who contain multitudes.  If you’ve worked as a nurse, a shipwright, a stay-at-home-dad, a mathematician and a gardener, you’re probably an interesting person to eat dinner with.  If I’ve seen you as word nerd, apple pie baker, guide-puppy caretaker, computer programmer, hiker, and gay-leather-fetish-gear-wearer, you are all the more human to me. 
“…and one man in his time plays many parts…”
Sixteen kids got up on stage last week, and my optimistic core rejoiced.  Yes, other people will always try to force roles upon us, try to direct us, try to limit us.  But, ultimately, we are all still our own writers, our own directors, and our own actors.   No matter where our name appears on the playbill, we all have many, many roles to play.
[Nameless… wordless… the four-foot tall murderer strode offstage, hoodie flapping at her shins and pigtails askew…]

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