“‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”
“Adam, for the last time, stick to the script. This is Annie we’re doing, not… whatever that was from. Just get on with your lines and take it from the top.”
“‘Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’”
“…I think someone gave you the wrong script.”
I don’t think a lot of people know this about me, but I used to act in plays as a kid. Granted, they weren’t anything big; they were basically two productions in summer camp and one at my elementary school, but I really loved the idea of getting to play a role and pretending to be a different person. When it finally came time to step on stage after the weeks of rehearsal and standing in front of a mirror memorizing my lines, that adrenaline rush was like no other. And afterwards, when the curtain came down and it was time to rejoin my peers, I was ready to sign all the unasked for autographs.
I have a lot of fond memories of my time acting in those three plays, but there is one aspect of my brief time as an actor (I use that term very loosely for myself) that has stuck with me to this day. Every now and then I’ll be doing something routine, like the dishes or making my bed, and I’ll just have to stop and think about the fact that in the three plays I acted in as a child, I was cast as either the villain or the whiny annoying sidekick.
Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing villains; in fact, I think they’re much more interesting and fun to portray than the goody-two-shoes hero. But all these years later I’m still left scratching my head wondering what the adults handling casting at my summer camp and school saw in my wide-eyed, adolescent self that made them go, “Oh, he’ll be a perfect person for the audience to root against.”
W-why?! Did they not like my face? Was it something I was putting out there? I don’t think I was that bad of a kid.
But I digress.
Anyway, the first play I acted in was at a summer camp when I was around ten or eleven. One day during breakfast a few days after moving in, I started to notice some campers, mostly girls, talking about auditioning for the camp’s play that year, which was going to be Annie. As someone who is absolutely terrified of public speaking, I of course didn’t think much of it and went back to my knock-off store-brand breakfast cereal. Even the thought of standing on a stage and facing everyone sent nervous shivers down my spine.
Later that day during the hour dedicated to cleaning up our brutally summer-sun-heated bunk, one of my bunkmates, who was way more confident than I was, proclaimed that he was going to audition for the play. Most of us were too busy pretending to be busy and helping with the cleaning, so we didn’t really pay too much attention when he followed up his statement by asking if anyone would be interested in going with him to the auditions, which were going to be held during our hour of free-time after lunch.
I don’t know what it was about that day, maybe it was because I’d successfully managed to sign up for my trio of ideal electives for the summer (rocketry, cooking, and nature, which was really just cooking in the woods. Note how none of them are sports), but I raised my hand and said I’d go with him.
And so, rather than spending my free hour playing on my Gameboy SP, my bunkmate and I joined a line of about thirty girls and four boys in the camp auditorium. Standing at the front before the stage was the play’s director.
Once everyone had assembled, the director told us that since Annie was a musical, when it was our time to audition and read our lines for who we were auditioning for, we would also have to sing a few lines of a song of our choosing so she could get a feel for our voices. She then reminded us that the play only has so many named characters, and that since there were a lot more people auditioning than there were roles, a lot of kids wouldn’t get their ideal pick. Still, she assured us that she would try her best to make sure everyone auditioning at least got some part in the production. Without further introduction, she welcomed the first auditionioner to the stage to kick things off.
As I stood there on the progressively shortening line, I thought to myself how perfect this is. I had decided earlier that despite how terrified performing in front of the camp made me, for one of the first times in my life I was not going to let my fears control my decisions. I was going to go all in: I wanted the role of Oliver Warbucks, the male lead. I figured that despite having never acted before, I was fully capable of pulling the role off. My sister was a huge fan of the movie version, and she’d often invite me along to watch it with her on Sundays. I could recall most of the songs and even already knew some of the lines. Looking around at my competition, I was starting to get an excited feeling. There were only six other boys, after all. I figured I had a good shot! I walked onto the stage feeling pretty confident.
“Hello. My name is Adam Samuel and I’m trying out for the role of Oliver Warbucks.”
“Okay. Whenever you’re ready, go ahead.”
A hush fell over the small crowd (there was no hush, but I like to imagine there was). I could feel the non-existent spotlight shining down on me, bathing my body in a glowing light. I suddenly didn’t feel nervous at all. I felt confident, assured. If my life were a fictionalized movie, this would be the part where the quiet hero finally breaks out of his shell. This was my moment!
What came out of my mouth that day was one of the most painful renditions of Happy Birthday I think anyone’s ever sung. I shrieked out the lyrics in a high-pitched, adolescent squawk. If I was on American Idol, that tape would have haunted me for the rest of my life. It was bad, but I didn’t feel that way coming off of it. I felt like I’d crushed it, and can only really imagine how bad it was looking back today with my adult-level of self-awareness.
After one last painfully elongated high note, I finally finished and stared triumphantly into the crowd, waiting in vain for my applause. Instead I saw a lot of blank faces and kids talking with one another, not even trying to keep their voices down: most of them had lost interest after the third auditioner (an hour is a long time when you’re ten and don’t have iPhones).
“Well, Adam, that was… definitely something.”
“Thank you,” I answered cheerfully, stepping off the stage and taking a seat with the other auditioners in the crowd.
When everyone had had their three minutes, the director announced to us all that she had a lot to consider, but would share the official cast list in the next day or two. As I was getting up to leave though, she motioned for me to stay behind and talk with her. The director thanked me for coming and auditioning, but told me that of us boys, she’d just about made her decision on who was going to be the chosen one to play Warbucks… and it was going to be someone else.
Instantly I could feel my heart shatter. I was devastated, but before I could say anything the director went on to explain that surprisingly no one had auditioned to play Rooster, the con-artist villain; everyone was either going for Annie or Oliver Warbucks. She said that while my singing might need some work (“work” would be a huge understatement), she liked how I read my lines. Then, right there in the auditorium, she offered me the part if I was up for it.
I’ll admit, I was conflicted. On the one hand I was crushed that I didn’t get the role I was hoping for, but at the same time I thought how Rooster is the second most prominent male character in the play. Sure, he was also the villain, but maybe I could have some fun playing him.
After taking a moment to think it over, I shrugged and accepted.
And so the rehearsals began. Instead of having a free hour every day after lunch, I traded in my time to join the rest of my selected cast members in the auditorium to practice and go over our scenes with the director. Camp was only four weeks long, and we had very limited time to put everything together. I was working hard going over my lines, trying as best I could to commit them to memory, and during rehearsals I was getting into the character of Rooster and trying to understand his motivation (spoiler alert: it’s bad).
The director was also helping me work on my singing. She was a super nice lady and somehow, miraculously, actually managed to elevate my singing level from an F- to a D+. By the time the night of the play came, if you covered your ears and were a good distance away, it might almost sound like I was singing on key.
Showtime was terrifying. I remember standing in the wings of the stage looking out into the crowd as the auditorium filled with just about every single person in the camp. I felt the most horrible pit forming in my stomach. Everything became a lot more real in that moment. Earlier before our dress rehearsal, the director’s helper had sat me down and covered me in rugged makeup and a drawn-on mustache; I looked like a different person.
And then it was time for me to step onstage… and it was so much fun.
Blessedly, all the hours of rehearsal paid off and I managed to remember all my lines. Even my singing I thought was manageable, though it was still super awkward to sing and dance in front of everyone. Rooster only really sings in one song, Easy Street, and looking back I’m actually really glad I ended up playing him. The workload for his part wasn’t so much that it ever became overwhelming. Comparatively, Oliver Warbucks had so much to do that I would have spent my summer in a constant state of panic trying to make sure I remembered everything.
Finally, the last line was said and it was time for us all to take a bow. When it was my turn and people started clapping, no joke, that was one of the best moments of my childhood. It lasted only a couple of seconds, but I still have that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment imprinted on my mind. It was amazing!
Afterwards the cast met up for a short wrap party. When I walked back to my bunk and stepped through the doors, my bunkmates circled around me and started asking me questions about what it was like being on stage. That kind of thing had never happened to me; that was usually for the kids who hit home runs or scored the last basket to save the game. I was excited to answer all their questions, but first I had to wash off my mustache.
Having had such a positive experience with acting my first year, naturally I wanted to be a part of the production the following year, which was going to be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (thankfully not a musical). When auditions began and the cast was released, it felt like the band was getting back together. In addition to a few newbies, most of the same kids involved with Annie were involved with this one too. The same girl who had played Annie was cast in the lead role, and I was cast as Bruno, the chubby, annoying, pseudo-side kick. He looked like this in the 1990 movie adaptation:
Rehearsals began and I was right back into the swing of things. I worked on my lines, practiced as hard as I could, and was feeling really confident that I’d do well again. My role this year was actually a lot easier than Rooster because (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book) Bruno ends up getting turned into a mouse during the second half of the story. As a result, portions of my lines got to be delivered from off stage, where I could read from the script. When I was on stage after being turned into a mouse, I used a puppet.
As a side note, I actually got to keep the puppet, and while working on this post I went looking for it, and folks, believe it or not, I actually found it!
Finally it was time for the play. Like with Annie I was all dressed up, had makeup put on by the director’s helpers, and was ready to go. There was so much excitement building backstage among the cast, and when it came time for me to step on stage, I walked out with my head high and… -and I totally forgot my lines.
I think there is nothing scarier in a kid’s life, or anyone’s life for that matter, than standing on a stage in front of lots of people and realizing you have no idea what you’re supposed to say; your face drains of color, your legs start to wobble, and you get the strongest urge ever to throw up. Everyone is watching you, and you know you’re surely going to be the topic of discussion once things are over and everyone leaves. I had never messed up so bad in rehearsals where I just entirely blanked on what I was supposed to say. I wanted to cry.
Thankfully, the other campers were able to recover for me, and after a few terrible moments I remembered what I was supposed to say and was able to jump back into things. Still, I left that stage that night feeling awful. That moment was enough to erase almost all the good, happy, feelings I’d built within myself the previous year. I was ready to give up on acting all together. I was done.
The following year the camp was supposed to put on another production, an adaptation of a Peanuts movie, or something. Having had a full school year to bitterly stew over my failure, somewhere along the way I decided to give acting one last go. It was like a fire had ignited in my eyes, compelling me to step onto the stage one last time to prove to myself that I could do it right. By now I was also starting to really get into writing, and I saw this play as a chance to close the chapter of my brief acting career before moving on to pursue the other things I was interested in. Acting was a lot of fun, but I was ready to start trying other things.
…But the play ended up getting cancelled before auditions even happened.
I was pretty bummed when I heard the news. I had spent so many days thinking about rehearsals and trying to get my confidence back, that to have what I had built up in my mind as my chance at redemption taken away really burned my spirits. I definitely spent that summer in a more somber mood.
One day I was sitting in my bunk on my forever-unmade bed when a revelation hit me. You see, in my school, the eighth grade, which I was now going into, always puts on this huge Holocaust remembrance play at the end of the year. It’s a pretty big event; parents and community members come out to see it, and even classes from other schools join the audience. Every kid in the grade is involved in some capacity, and it’s basically the culmination of the eighth grade experience and a send-off initiation.
As I sat there in my bunk, I suddenly saw the opportunity the play presented. I had watched my sister act in her play two years prior, and I saw how much work goes into getting the kids ready and prepared. I realized that there was no better opportunity for me to redeem myself after last year’s mistake. And so, when camp ended and the school year came around, I eagerly put my name down to try out for some of the bigger parts of the play.
Our year was taking on the story of the rescue of the Jews in Denmark (It’s pretty incredible what happened. If you’re interested, you can read more about it HERE), and after a brief casting process, I was given the role of a Nazi officer. I have to say, going from portraying animated, almost comical, characters like Rooster and Bruno to a Nazi who contributed to the atrocities and crimes against humanity that were committed during the Holocaust was a very different kind of feeling. Despite my apprehension, at the same time I was also so excited to finally be acting in a play again.
Rehearsals quickly began and right off the bat things were quite different than they were in camp. For one, with the whole grade being involved, the play was a much bigger production with a couple of months for rehearsal time. We would go over our scenes after school for a few hours, and when we weren’t part of the group rehearsing, we would all converge in the classrooms to order food, work on our homework, or play games.
Compared to the other characters I’d played, this role was by far the smallest. In total I was only in two scenes. Despite that fact I would go over my lines in my head constantly, and when it came time for me to step onto the set, which was three wooden tables set up in the cafeteria, to rehearse, I was focused and fully engaged. I was not going to let what had happened with the previous play happen again.
When I was in camp, I remember feeling calm, cool, and focused on the days leading up to the performances. I had this attitude that if I didn’t think about being nervous, I just wouldn’t be. Back then it had worked (usually up until the point when we were all waiting backstage waiting to go on, at which point anything goes), but despite all my internal reassurance, with the Holocaust play I just remember this overwhelming feeling of panic and dread hanging over my head. I was having flashback to the last time I’d blanked on my lines, and even thought I was the most prepared of all three times I’d been involved in a performance, I couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to puke.
Things moved quickly. Before I knew it it was the day of the play. That morning I was a nervous wreck, but I would reassure myself by running over my lines in my head. I had them down. I joined my grade in the high school and spent a little time getting into my costume and having quite a bit of makeup put on.
Then it was showtime.
The music began and the opening monologues kicked off. I watched from backstage as my classmates delivered their lines, all the while counting down the moments until it would be my turn. I thought about how good I’d felt after performing as Rooster, and then how rough it had been as Bruno. The whole of it made me feel queasy. I thought about how if I messed this up, then that was really just sad. I’d have blown my chance at redemption, and that would be it.
“Alright, Adam, get ready. You’re on in thirty seconds.”
I clenched my hands into fist at my side, gritted my teeth and tried my best to shut my brain off. I marched onto the stage, took my place with the classmate I was acting my scene with…
…And I totally forgot my lines again.
Nah, I’m just kidding! It went fine. I actually had more fun with that performance than I did with any of the others. It was euphoric, run purely on adrenaline. I almost wished it had been longer. I remembered all my lines, said them just as I’d rehearsed, and was entirely satisfied with my performance.
When I was done, I quickly walked backstage and stepped aside for the next batch of kids to get onstage and have their moment. I remember walking to a quiet corner in the dressing room and just collapsing against the wall into a chair. I felt so spent and exhausted: I could have slept for a day right then and there.
But in that flood of emotions I was feeling, I also was feeling really proud of myself. I learned that day what redemption felt like. It felt like the closing of a chapter of my life.
And thus my time acting in plays came to end. Like I said, I had a blast and wouldn’t trade my memories for the world. But even though I had fun, as I grew up there were other activities that I became more interested in and involved with. Nowadays, acting just isn’t something that interests me anymore. I’d probably sign my kids up for lessons though, if they told me they wanted to give it a try.
I think that as a kid, part of trying out new activities is not just to figure out what you like, but also to figure out what you don’t like. Otherwise you’ll be ninety years old wondering why you never tried skateboarding or ceramics and not having figured out by then that if you had given them a shot, you wouldn’t have liked them. Like for me, I played sports, and now I know that I hate them, but I’m still glad I gave them a try because if I hadn’t, maybe there would have come a day in my life where I’d scratch my head and feel bad for not at least seeing if there’s a chance I’d like them.
So anyway, if you’re an introverted kid thinking about doing something a little out of your comfort zone, I say go for it. Even if you don’t like it, at least you can scratch it off the list of things to try at least once in your life. And who knows? Maybe you might even find a new passion for something you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
At the very least, you might also have some cool stories to share on a blog one day.