I was a fretful, timid, and slightly catatonic child. I slept with my hands balled-up into fists. I threw away invitations to birthday parties because I didn’t want to enter strange homes where there might be fathers who wore hats, or dogs. Or mothers.
My plan for living a ten-year-old life was can’t-I-stay-home-and-read-another-book? My mother’s was why-don’t-you-go-outside-and-play? And, by “play,” she meant, you’re going to act in The Wizard of Oz sponsored by the local park district for which I’ve already signed you up. And stop making that face.
Tears and pleading ensued and continued until I came face to face with the young director. Apparently Miss Janie also thought that putting me on the stage would transform me into a carefree child. Couldn’t she see the troll standing in front of her, I wondered.
“So you want to be in the show,” Miss Janie purred. She looked at me through eyelashes so thick I thought they’d stick together when she blinked. Later, my mother told me in her flat, factual voice, “They’re false.” After a long pause Miss Janie said, “I’ll find a place for you.”
I idled away a handful of rehearsals wishing I could escape on the construction paper yellow brick road snaking up the back wall of the stage set. If only I hadn’t landed the role of third munchkin from the left. If only I had been cast as a tree, or better still, a rock.
I dreaded the fate careening toward me. I knew I would disappoint Miss Janie and my mother because I knew I would quit the play. But I didn’t know that my mother would force me to attend opening night. “I want you to see what you’re missing,” she said, lit Chesterfield smoldering ominously in her right hand. After watching my replacement—a red-headed girl with a show-biz personality—turn in such a memorable third-munchkin-from-the-left performance that she stole the show, my mother leaned down to me, and, between drags intoned, “That could’ve been you.” The slightly worse for wear, truth be told, not true yellow but yellow-ish escape route mocked me.
Forty-eight years later, I found myself in an acting class, standing in a circle of strangers playing theater games. Miss Janie had been replaced by Mr. B who excelled in finding positive things to say. In one game, each student was given a scene to act out and the other students had to guess the situation. I was to play a sister whose sister had attempted suicide, been released from a mental hospital, moved in with me, then went out for cigarettes and never returned. I had been searching for her all night until, at rise, I find her in a bus station.
Then, I delivered some really bad acting. Mr. B said the equivalent of get your head out of your ass, she’s your sister, she’s tried to kill herself, you should be worried or sympathetic or just relieved she’s alive. Only nicer. On my second attempt I made a noisy, panting entry through a fake door—one you roll around on wheels like a portal into a Magritte—and, upon seeing her broken form hunched away from me, I expressed such sisterly love that one of the other students guessed I was playing a kidnapper, my sister was my hostage, and I had induced Stockholm Syndrome in her. Holy shit, I thought, am I bad at this. Especially since I have an actual sister.
Nonetheless, I was hooked, and not because I imagined I’d be auditioning for roles but because living feels to me, and I suspect to many, like being unconscious, not thinking about what you’re doing or why you're doing it. Theater is like that door on wheels, offering a new awareness just over the threshold.
Maybe my mother did know the real me. Maybe she was looking past the awkward, inward child standing before her and seeing clear through to what I needed—an entire apparatus of fakery, complete with pulleys and lights and props and actors. And roles and scripts and rehearsals. I may not be able to act this stuff, I thought. But I think I can write it.
Nina Dellaria is co-founder and editor of Bird's Thumb, an educator, and playwright.