By Vivian Hoang
I like to imagine that the bards of homeric legend performing in Greek amphitheaters maintained a level of pride in their work; regaling slack jawed audiences with epic tales of chimera slaying, boat sailing, and passionate incestuous relationships (often multiple times within the same verse!). Indeed, the Greek poets of times past took pride in the art of theater, back when watching a man wearing a towel shout in the blistering Mediterranean sun was the preferred source of entertainment.
Pride in one’s work, pride in one’s institution; well, it all sounded like a breeze if the said work was anything other than my school’s Children’s Theatre production of Aristocats. Yes, you could have your Iphigenia at Aulis, your Twelfth Night and Crucible, but why not add Aristocats to the hallowed halls of professional theater? In the 40 minutes jam-packed with half learned choreography and expedited dialogue, you would have the tantalizing intrigue of Hamlet, the nail-biting rising action of Angels in America, the grim climax of Oepdis Rex, and, without fail, the emotional finality of A Raisin In The Sun.
While it seemed nice to pretend that what we were performing was something profound, something important, the grim reality was that while other students during 2nd period were learning or testing, we, the honorary members of theater, were dully shuffling around in a darkened room, crooning to grimy elementary schoolers.
So everyday, excluding Wednesdays, was a show day. Much like a disgruntled steel factory mill worker, I trudged to my employer’s office (the stage door), handed in my work permit papers (signed into the cast sheet), pulled on my work uniforms and boots (got mic'd and costumed), and strapped in for another laborious day of work (performing).
Complain as I might, I had the highly esteemed opportunity of playing Edgar, the “evil” butler who was racking up multiple charges of theft, forgery, extortion, cat-napping, attempted murder, and robbery in the span of 40 minutes. He was supposed to be an embarrassing yet conniving trickster, hell-bent on disposing of his Madame’s cats for the taste of his rightful inheritance money. However, during my countless rehearsals and read throughs, I empathized with him. Here was a man who had served his master for most of his life, only for her to bestow her entire fortune upon her cats who lacked the capability to file taxes or pay for mortgage. His motivations seemed sane to me. In the event that my promised sum of inheritance was suddenly deferred to say, a house plant, I too, would be consumed by maddening rage.
As for the children forced to see our yearly shows, the unenviable task of entertaining them loomed upon our wigged and heavily hairsprayed heads. A well oiled machine, my theater class was. We were trained to expect the unexpected, to respond with the infamous “yes, and?” in the case a child would shout obscenities or flash us. It was almost comical how each class that filtered into our theater would find new and frankly, impressive ways to catch us off guard.
Shoes would be thrown in place of the symbolic rotten tomato. Children would fall asleep mid performance, conflating the darkened lights of the theater with nap time. Sometimes, the spirit of visual performing arts would enter a child’s body, prompting him to stand up and join our performers onstage in a dance number.
On the second week of performances, a tottering kindergartener pointed at an ensemble member dressed as a cat, sentencing him to eternal damnation with a single word: “Homo.”
There had to be some sort of generational disconnect between the children of old and the children of now; when I was around the age of 7, I genuinely believed “stupid” was a cuss word up until the 5th grade and cried when I saw roadkill on the street. 5th graders now had a terrifying knowledge of ethnic slurs and gang signs, and were, as a result, not amused by the sight of high schoolers parading around in animal costumes.
Fortunately for me, I had better luck interacting with my critics; most of the comments I received were limited to “That mustache looks fake,” and “You guys suck at singing.” These comments numbed me, toughened me. For how could I call myself a storyteller if I did not swallow my critiques? Like a war hardened soldier familiar with the steep toll of battle, I trekked on.
Although few and far between, there would be the occasional moment of reward. Sometimes, the sparkling eyes of children seated in the front row seemed to wonder out loud, “How could you do that? How do you do it?”, as if it baffled them to see 20 fully costumed teenagers on stage cartwheeling and somersaulting to licensed jazz. After the show ended and we stood outside the theater waving goodbye at the children, we would watch their awestruck faces leaving the building, gaping at the fact that we were real, breathing humans that would not dissipate with the touch of a finger.
In our deepest moments of despair and painful costume wedgies, we realized that what was routine and heavily uncomfortable to us, was magic to them. Hell, if we started forming mysterious rashes on our bodies from wearing the same sweat stained costume for five weeks in a row, it would be worth the brief moment of escapism we afforded these children.
So take that, Shakespeare, Euripides, Homer, and Martin Scorcese. The art of storytelling lives on– from the occasional life changing classroom experience to the sorry suckers in cat costumes, left to scrape the spitballs stuck to the floor of the figurative amphitheater.