My father had died about a week ago. That’s why I’d been sitting there, then, re-taking a history test that I’d missed while going through the mourning process.
The scantron part was done, so now I was furiously scribbling in the little blue book. You know those little blue books they make you use to write essays? The worst. They were always too small, and I always smeared ink everywhere, and I always had to ask for a second blue book because my handwriting was too big and I was too much of a diva to properly write in-between the lines.
Anyway, I was creaming this test. The little blue eraser on my little blue erasable pen was seeing no action as the ink spilled out. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote.
There was a knock at the door.
My history teacher, an excitable man with very cool facial hair, rushed out of his seat, opening the door.
My drama teacher, a not-so-excitable woman with no noticeable facial hair, was standing there. She said she needed to see me. My history teacher said she had to wait until after the test.
“Ohmygod,” I thought, “Am I going to have to wear a dress tonight?”
To give that some context, I’d been part of a school play called The Servant of Two Masters. It was a farce, and I’d had a bit-part as a servant (not THE servant, mind you) whose greatest moment was probably getting killed in an accidental stabbing. I assure you it was a HILArious moment. But I’d given it up because my father’s death had taken place a week before the play started, and I simply couldn’t be there for the vital, grueling tech rehearsals.
That said, I’d also been an understudy. And I’d heard through the grapevine that a rather small rather petite Cuban girl had been sick. She played a major character, and I hoped they knew better than to try sticking me in that dress. To give you the visual, I’m skinny, but I’m also 6′. This girl couldn’t have been taller than 5’5″. A guy like me in a dress like that was bound to cause the sort of wardrobe malfunction only Janet Jackson could be proud of.
All these thoughts spun through my head as I raced through my last two essays. I yelled, “DONE!” practically threw my test at him, and bounded through the halls, as I rushed to the theater. I wasn’t even running–I was leaping. So it took no time at all to get there.
The good news was that I didn’t have to replace the Cuban girl. She was maybe a little ill, but nothing too bad.
The bad news was that the lead character of the play (THE servant) had been kicked off campus, and he was NOT allowed to come back.
The play was in two hours.
I was his understudy, but didn’t know any of his lines.
In my defense, understudies for high school plays aren’t usually expected to memorize all of the lead’s lines. That’s for professionals who get paid for that sort of stuff. Also I had a lot of acne. Also I was a dumb kid. I don’t know, choose whichever excuse you want.
The point is, I didn’t know my lines, and everyone accepted that.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t really just pick up a script and perform the play, either. The Servant of Two Masters adopted characters and ideas from an Italian form of theater known as Commedia dell’Arte, a comedic form that took archetypal characters (the clown, the doctor, the lovers, etc.) and improvised with them.
To honor the tradition, we had improvised in the rehearsal process, inserting our own gags into an already ridiculous play. In truth, half the script was nearly worthless, since we’d changed so much.
Still, I had a choice right then and there: did I want to go on the stage and potentially embarrass myself in front of maybe a hundred people? My theater teacher knew everything that had happened recently, and told me I absolutely didn’t have to.
But I’d already made up my mind.
The next two hours were a blur, chaos at its best and worst. The director and a couple cast members dutifully started sticking little slips of paper into the script, which denoted where the play’s content had been changed. Meanwhile I ran around, trying to figure out what the play was even about (being a minor character in a play does NOT require knowing what the play is about, fyi). I threw on a costume and slathered on some makeup. Before I knew it I was onstage.
Ten pages in, and I was COMPLETELY lost. Someone had skipped to a line they had half a page ahead, and then they’d jumped back, and I’m pretty sure I missed my first line?
There was a pause. I KNEW I was supposed to say something. I vaguely remembered that my character flirted with that sick Cuban girl’s character right around now, but couldn’t find the line itself.
So I walked up to her and said, “Sometimes, when I gaze into your eyes, it’s like there’s a Cuban Missile Crisis. In my pants.”*
What can I say? I was nervous, and she was Cuban.
Anyway, half the audience hooted and hollered with joy. The other half was less than thrilled. But, uh, too late.
I got off the stage, and sometime later was supposed to get back on it. But the thing about a backstage is that it’s DARK. And I had no idea what line was the cue for me to get back onstage. So I messed up.
I walked onstage too early, blushed, and retreated.
Ohgod ohgod ohgod.
The two actors onstage continued talking. Then, there was something of a pause. I was pretty sure this time really was my cue, so I entered again.
I was wrong again.
But this time I knew i couldn’t just back out again. That would be too embarrassing. I had to own it.
“Uh, hey,” I said, moving farther onto the stage, talking to the two guys who were having a dialogue, “You two touching Pixie Sticks yet?” I looked out at the audience, “Sorry. Spoiler Alert. Uh, yeah. Just tell me when you guys are done.”
I ran backstage again, and didn’t come out til they called for me.
I started getting the hang of the pell-mell that this play had become. I figured out the jumps in the script quicker, and things just began to flow more smoothly. Still, my hands were shaking. Another fifteen to twenty pages in, and I dropped my script. The carefully-placed slips of paper my friends and director had placed fell everywhere.
Still feel kind of bad about that.
Things took a turn for the worse. I managed to improv my way through most of it, but then we got to the climax of the play, its most famous scene, where the servant of two masters serves food to his two masters (the play’s plot was pretty straightforward).
Well, that’s what was SUPPOSED to happen.
I was supposed to go back-and-forth in a frenzied manner from my first master to my second, serving everything from appetizers to desserts. Instead I served one master everything, not taking anything away, stacking plate after plate, confused and unsure what my lines were. After a time, I stacked a bowl of ‘pea soup’ (green applesauce, which had been sitting backstage for a week) on the top of this massive tower of plates, only for them all to topple onto the actor.
He was fine, and made some comment about me not being a very good servant. Which, I’ll admit, was a fair observation.
Confused, I made jokes about a piece of lettuce. I laughed, nervously. I laughed alone.
Finally, a voice from on high (my director, talking into a microphone in the sound/lighting booth) spoke to me, through the speakers in the theater: “Turn to the top of Page 72. Top of Page 72.”
I turned to the top of the page. It was the ending line of the scene.
My bliss, my saving, the answer to all my not-so-deistic prayers.
We finished the rest of the play without too much more incident. At curtain call, I realized that I’d just gone through one of the best moments of my life.
On the one hand, so many mistakes had been made that day, and almost all of them were mine. On the other hand, we’d had fun, laughed them off, and gone on to create a unique theatrical experience. I’d enjoyed Improvisational comedy before then, but that’s when I grew to really love it.
Later that night, mom and I were in the living room. I was laying down on the sofa, with my eyes closed.
“It’s been a weird ten days,” I said.
“Yeah, it has.”
“I- I think I’m going to die tonight.”
“What?” she asked.
“I feel it. I think this is the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my entire life. And it came so soon after dad’s death. And I just don’t know where anything could go from here. This is it. The most emotion I could ever feel. After this, it’s over.”
“It’s been a weird ten days,” she told me kissing me on the forehead, “Get some sleep.”
I did. Felt better the next day.
In the end I don’t really know what this story means. Those ten days–starting with my dad’s death in the morning and ending with the night of that performance of Servant of Two Masters–were perhaps the ten most emotional days of my life. It’s been around five years since then, and I can tell you I was wrong, that night. There were a lot of places to go from there: a lot of emotions to be felt, events to behold, and Improv scenes to perform. I’ll have to tell you all about it, some other time in some other posts.
At the most basic level, I suppose the story’s all about how Improv got me through a very dark time in my life: I was still sad about my father, but everything seemed better now after I’d gone onstage and learned to laugh again.
I also suppose it’s about how I ended up Improving through everything else in my life, realizing that nothing’s more fun than losing your script and fumbling around. (Remember to thank all the people who help you out, though. Without my director I would have been TOAST.)
Or maybe it’s about the persistence required to stick to something til it ends.
Or maybe it’s about the strangeness of beginnings, endings and everything in-between.
Maybe it means whatever you want it to mean. Happy now?
*You might recognize that line, which we used for the 12 Historical Pick-up Lines article!