McGinnis: Misadventures in theaterWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Having the chance to interview local theater legends like Jennifer Rockwood always brings to mind how much I love theater, and have almost all my life. I love acting, I love directing, I love watching other people perform. Theater is as big a part of my soul as almost anything you can name, which is somewhat odd when you consider that my first memory of being on stage was a feeling of utter humiliation.
Like most everyone, my first show came in the form of an elementary school “pageant” during first grade. I was a proud attendee of Luckey Elementary in rural Ohio, a wonderful three-floor brick building that I believe hasn’t changed in all its decades of existence. I visited there a few years back and the place seemed exactly the same, apart from feeling incomparably smaller than it had during my youth.
My elementary school days were largely spent daydreaming. I was a notoriously lazy student when it came to actual schoolwork. How could I concentrate on math problems and parts of a sentence when the world was in peril and only I, along with my trusty pals Optimus Prime and He-Man, could be counted on to save it?
One of the few classes I could be counted on to pay attention in was music. In a small room in the school’s basement, we would while away hours practicing scales and singing songs while perched on tiny squares of carpet. It was in music class that we learned of our big stage debuts in the upcoming Christmas pageant.
Grade school shows, at least in my childhood, can only be called “theater” in the loosest sense of the word — dozens of kids crammed onto a small stage, singing with terrified smiles plastered onto their faces. When time came for “dialogue,” a member of the young “chorus” made their way down to one of the two stand-up microphones on the stage, said their line and then shuffled back to their place in the menagerie, the big moment of glory over before it began.
There were no tryouts or auditions for these shows; you earned a part by simply existing. My role for my theatrical debut was a jack-in-the-box in a show where toys came to life; decades of separation have dulled my memory of the remainder of the “plot.” I do, however, remember my first line with terrifying clarity: “Jumping for joy! Oh, this is so exciting! First the star, and now, Sammy!”
Please note that “Jumping for joy!” was not actually part of my line. It was a stage direction, meant to instruct the actor on what he or she was supposed to be doing — jumping about being a rather natural activity for a jack-in-the-box. However, I assumed that since it was written there, I was supposed to say that too, and my long-suffering music teacher gave up on correcting me about 10 minutes into the first rehearsal.
The night of the pageant arrived, and I was ready. I had a wonderful costume lovingly crafted by my mother out of an old television box, with my head poking out the top and hands barely peeking out the sides — less a jack-in-the-box than a jack-IS-the-box. I had my lone line memorized and my choreography (Jumping for joy!) down pat. There was no trace of stage fright in my mind.
Finally, my time came. I strode to the microphone and with every eye in the auditorium on me, began my line: “Jumping for joy! Oh, this is so exciting! First the star and now — BWAAAAANG!!!”
That last bit was not a word I said. It was the sound of feedback made when, as I was “jumping for joy!,” the corner of my costume/box slammed directly into the microphone in front of me.
Pandemonium. Literally EVERYONE in the auditorium exploded into laughter. I looked dumbfounded at a sea of faces roaring at my blunder. I looked down at my kindly music teacher, and even she was doubled over and covering her face. Bewildered and embarrassed, I turned back to one of my fellow chorus members/toys: “Should … should I do it again?”
So yeah, it’s a little remarkable that I still have such a fondness for the stage, what with my first memory of the spotlight ending in such utter humiliation. Maybe it’s simple practicality. Really, what could possibly happen that could be worse than that? Or perhaps, like the old phrase, I laugh, that I may not cry.
Or jump for joy.
Jeff McGinnis is Pop Culture Editor at Toledo Free Press. He can be reached at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.