I was 12 years old, and about 2 years into what would later be referred to as my "depressed years." Already I was showing signs of being overweight, and apart from my friend Neal, I didn't really have many friends by this point. I had convinced Neal, for some reason, to join choir with me. I joined choir in 6th grade because the music teacher (whose name was Ms. Eisley) was looking to pad out what was a rather thinly populated elementary school choir, and apparently made a rather convincing argument for people to sign up. Maybe I got out of class or something. Anyway, I was dismayed that she split Neal and myself up. Neal was a soprano, I think, and I was an alto, so we got ferreted away to our sections, far apart from each other.
God bless my music teacher. She knew I sung badly. I mean, I knew, but she REALLY knew, and did her damndest to do something... constructive about it. She was never mean or patronizing, she really tried hard to keep my ego from being bruised, and despite a few after-school lessons, it was apparent I was tone deaf, had no rhythm, and just... sang plain awful. I felt more bad for her, seeing the wincing when my lungs cracked out the lyrics like an errant gear messing up an otherwise flawless singing machine. I sang quieter and quieter, and by late October, I just mouthed the words enthusiastically. She must have known, but seemed happier, and that was good enough for me. Besides, one did not have to know the words as perfectly if one did not sing.
"Gregory," she said one day, because all teachers called me by my full name, "Ms. Shaver and I have decided to do a school play this year, 'A Christmas Carol.' I was hoping you'd try out." A play? Me? Sure! And so I did. I didn't have lofty goals, and when I did the auditions, I tried out for some really small part, like constable (three lines). I kept getting "callbacks," and the group of people got thinner and thinner. When we were down to a handful of people, I was asked to practice Fezziwig, and I was thrilled to have such a big part. But then I was called back once more, and asked to try lines from the lead, Ebeneezer Scrooge. At no time did I ever think I would get this part. Two other kids were fighting for it. One was a boy named Jean Bellefue, who was once a friend of mine until a horrible fight in 5th grade (he was a snobby French-Canadian, and a very outspoken racist), and the other was a kid named Nick, whom I practiced trombone with in the band (another bad idea into my foray of being musically inclined). I recall Jean was terrible. He read his lines with the kind of stilted prose like he needed reading glasses and was focusing more on phonetically pronouncing the words correctly than giving them realistic inflection. I knew, in my heart, Nick had the part.
Parts were posted on Ms. Shaver's door. I was eager to see them, but there was such a flurry, I decided I could wait. I think it was one of the girls who came to me first and said, "Y-you got the lead!" No. They wouldn't. So I went to go look, and by this time, everyone was staring at me with a kind of shock and maybe slight reverence. There it was. Right at the top.
Ebeneezer Scrooge ..... Gregory Larson
There must be some mistake! "No," Ms. Shaver said, "we want you. Nick will be your understudy." Nick was to play Fezziwig. Jean got constable. Dude, that can't be right! Jean was VERY mad, but he was a stupid racist by that point anyway, and as a tribute to irony, after 6th grade, his father got transferred to Haiti, and they all had to move there. But now he was just a silent grumbler in the back wings. "Why me?" I asked Ms. Eisley. "Because you are the best actor we've seen for your age." What a nice complement!
My mother made a costume, while I practiced and practiced. I am very bad at memorizing lines, and so I had to do them over and over and over. I was terrified I'd get on stage and forget them. But the two teachers gave us a lot of confidence. There were other actors as well, all good (except Jean, where I was tone-deaf, he was inflection-crippled). I recall Tiny Tim was played by a little first grader named Sarah. She was very small, blond, and shy as anything. But she pulled through. Jacob Marley was played by a girl named Faith whose parents were from India. I recall we had to make her hair gray and ghost-like by putting talcum powder in it, and when that got on her dark skin, she looked very gray and ashen. She also really threw herself into the part, and was quite good for a fifth-grader. In fact, if I ever am haunted by Christmas spirits, Faith would pretty much scare me badly to this day, even if her chains were made from paper and dragged boxes with their UPS labels still on them.
After a month and a half of practicing, we only had two performances. One for the school during the day, and one for the parents at night. The performance went pretty good, but since the day was really our first real run, some odd things happened.
First, there was a scene where I had to change into my night clothes. My "work shirt" was really the top part of a button-down undershirt, so in order to change, I had to take off my pants and coat, put on a cap, and wala! Instant night clothes. Only... we didn't have a place for me to change... except onstage. If I ever had stage fright, I cured it in that scene. Imagine this, a pudgy 12 years old, just hit puberty, and I have to take off my pants onstage. I don't recall feeling too embarrassed, but my goodness, that was comedy gold to the young audience. The kids must have laughed for about ... 2 minutes. I waited (Ms. Shaver had warned me not to say lines while people were laughing or something - another good lesson). I don't recall feeling more than, "Yes yes, pants came off, very funny... let's move on, now." When I did that for the parents? They stood up an applauded. I wasn't prepared for that, but I recall standing in the spotlights, waiting to say my lines, wondering why parents were clapping. My mother said that it showed how brave I was. That was truly odd. The whole experience did less to humiliate me than it did to pretty much cure what little stage fright I might have had.
Another snafu happened at the end when "the boy in the street who gets the goose for Mr. Scrooge" screwed up his lines, halting the scene. The kid's name was Dean, who became a friend of mine for the rest of the year (until he moved away), but I didn't know him as a friend yet. There's a part which goes something like:
Scrooge: You there, boy!
Boy: Yes sir?
Scrooge: Do you know that fat goose that hangs in the poultry man's window?
Boy: Yes sir!
Except he said "No sir," for some reason (I suspect nerves). I paused. The scene stopped cold. I had not been taught to ad-lib yet, so I didn't know how to proceed. So I simply repeated my line. "Do you know that fat goose that hangs in the poultry man's window?" "No sir!" he replied again, almost proud in defiance. "The goose?" I asked, tilting my head hardly at him. Then he froze. That wasn't my next line, and suddenly he was aware something had gone wrong. He paused, and seconds seemed like minutes. "...in the window?" I asked. Hint, hint. "Oh, YES SIR!" he said, realizing his error. "I'll get it straightaway sir!" he cried out, and bolted. I suspect he thought because he missed some lines, he had to catch up by skipping ahead. He left me saying to empty air, "I'll give you two shillings..." Dean was sorry later, but the teacher didn't criticize him at all, and they taught us how to recover from misspoken lines (someone else had screwed up badly in the Fezziwig scene), and that's when I learned how to ad-lib.
After we played for the parents, they loved us. They loved Tiny Tim, especially, because she was so cute and angelic. We really had her looking like a boy, which she took in stride (boys are so icky when you're a first garde girl, after all). And when the final number of "No Man is an Island" was sung, I was holding Sarah's teeny little hand, and recall feeling how ice cold it was.
A parent recorded the whole play for the kids, and gave the parents cassette tapes for those who requested it. I still have my copy. A few years ago, I played it, and I must say, I was not that great an actor. My main problem seemed to be I was TOO focused on the script, and recited the lines, inflection and all, like I was speed-reading. Dickens in 30 seconds or less. Later in my acting "career" I learned how to throw myself into the chracter and use "method acting" (where the cliche "what's my motivation?" comes from), and use dramatic pauses to let the audience think and carry over ideas. But I was 12, and I don't hate myself for it. I had to start somewhere. At least by the time I was doing Prune Bran, I had it all figured out, because comedy is all about timing and method.
The whole experience changed me. It made me want to take up acting (which never really went anywhere, another story), gave me confidence onstage, and... the story of Scrooge changed a lot about who I was. I think, in some really corny way, it did give me the spirit of Christmas that was so lacking in our house. It taught me, on a deep level, a moralistic lesson about misplaced opportunity, the consequences of greed and regret, as well as how it's never too late for retribution. I know it seems trite and corny and like a bad Hallmark movie, but it did. It really did. The story is part of who I am. I watch the various versions every year, drinking in the lessons it teaches me, and every year I get another angle on who Scrooge was, what he meant, and what Dickens was trying to say (a writer, whose works I otherwise think of as too wordy and dull).
It's a rare, good Christmas memory.
So, Merry Christmas everyone... no bah humbug from me!
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000314.html