In the Spring of 1994, my senior year of high school, our Drama department put on a play. This was no ordinary play, this was The Spirit of Theater, a medley of 21 shows our teacher and mentor, Mrs. DeGregory, had directed over her years with our school. As she was retiring and my friends and I were graduating, this show meant something to us all.
I had been given the role of Student Director, working to maintain the chaos that would come with so many scene changes and so many cast members, many of them under the age of listening to direction. Mrs. DeGregory had also brought back a few of her former students to reprise their former characters, including one girl (woman by then) who was to take on five different roles.
I kept track of every actor and actress, when they were supposed to be on stage, when they weren't and were just goofing off during rehearsals, and worked hand in hand with the stage manager, a friend of mine who was prone to yelling when frustrated, to keep everything running smoothly and keep our director happy.
I had a few bit roles here and there, but nothing major. The two months of rehearsals went swimmingly, the graduates coming the last week to join the undergrads for run throughs. The show would be great.
I got called into Mrs. D's office the day of our opening performance. She looked at me with stern eyes. (Not uncommon as she wasn't known for smiling often.) "We have a problem."
My pulse jumped. She had a problem with me? What did I do? What didn't I do? My mind raced with the options of something I may have forgotten. "What's the problem?"
"Leah pulled out."
An alumni. Who had five roles throughout the performance. And no understudy. (Mrs. DeGregoy didn't believe in understudies.) The show would seriously stumble without the scenes Leah was supposed to carry.
"What do we do?"
"I need you to do it."
Me? What about running the cast and making sure they hit their marks? What about keeping the students away from the stage manager when he and the techies were trying to move sets? (As I said, he was a real bitch when pushed.) (Yeah, I meant bitch. No typo there.)
"Do you know her lines?"
I stammered as I recalled the different costume changes I would have to undergo. Oh, what about costumes? "Y-yes."
"You have two hours to find costumes for all the scenes and get to make up. Curtain up at seven-thirty."
"Mrs. D, I don't know-"
She leaned in close and stared me down. (She was quite good at intimidation.) "You will do it. And you will do it well. You are going to save my show." Stepping back, she turned to her planner, dismissing me. "Now go find your costumes."
I ran out to my car, clutching my keys in one hand and the script in the other, on the brink of tears from the thrill at being sought out to take on such a challenge and the lung clenching fear that I would screw it up completely. (High school students. So dramatic, no?)
It took minutes to get home as we lived so close to the school, running inside to yell the turn of events to my mother (No readily available cell phones back then. Remember when news had to wait until you were both in a stationary area?) was a blur as I ransacked her closet looking for clothes, long skirts to dress an older woman who would be planning a murder in a scene of Arsenic and Lace. Once she knew the gist, she created a bigger mess than I did, yanking blouses from the hangers.
My bundle of cotton in my arms, I rushed back to the school, chanting my lines over and over, hoping the confidence would somehow seep in with each word, yet the only thing rising was my nerves.
Time sped by as the big fantasy I had harbored for most of my adolescent years was slapping me in the face. I was going to fail. In my dreams, I had succeeded. Now, I didn't see a happy ending.
Make up on, standing offstage left, watching in silence as the other cast members squealed in excitement and nervous energy, I couldn't assume the director status and hush them, only wincing when the stage manager came over to yell at them for just being themselves.
He whirled away from the now mute Oklahoma! dancers, set his sights on me, and winked in support before bellowing "Five minutes!" and running off to kill someone else's buzz.
The house lights dimmed out. Backstage noise fell to its death. My heart beat loudly as I whispered a hasty last prayer to Thespis, as if that would save my ass. No turning back now.
The curtain opened.
It's all about me! Or you!
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